Monday, May 31, 2010

Food, Food, Everywhere

You know that feeling of when you have so many things to do that you actually end up putting them off more just because of their daunting number? I sit here with writer's block because of that exact reason. It is not the fact that I have nothing to share with you, but TOO many things to share. I will try to survey them as efficiently as possible, with pictures doing most of the work (since I know you like looking at those more than the words anyway, ha!).

First, there's the new block of peaches. After many PVC pipes, cans of primer and glue, rolls of drip tubing, digging, leveling, micro-sprinkler construction, and final installation, these hundreds of newbie peach trees will now be happily spritzed with H20 throughout the hot, dry summer.

Then, of course, there's the garden plot. After our last full till, we headed out to survey the rows and create the beds. Hooray for tractors, spray paint, and long rolls of tape! We're looking to seed by the end of this week. First, lots of manicuring and raking.

And now, onto the feasts. And in this case, I literally mean Feast, a Buffalo one that is. The Colorado Culinary School of the Rockies in Boulder now comes to the North Fork Valley every year for their 'Farm to Table' segment of their curriculum (something, in my opinion, that should be a part of every culinary program). Their first main event was held at a Buffalo ranch where the meat was prepared three ways; braised brisket, short ribs, and grilled sirloin steaks. And that was just the meat...

The brisket was braised with caramelized onions, rosemary, sour cherries, and rhubarb.

Sorry Billy, but your brother tastes delicious!

The ranch also raises elk. Perfectly cooked seared elk tenderloin, on thinly sliced toasted baguette with a skim of dijon mustard. Perhaps my favorite item of the evening.

Housemade Focaccia

Puff pastry, sauteed local spinach with local goat cheese

Apple tarte tatin, rhubard cobbler, and a chocolate truffle.
The rhubarb cobbler was perfectly tart. We had a moment together.

The CSR also held meals throughout the week at the Black Canyon Cafe in Crawford, which were themed every night based on what kind of local meat they were serving. We went on Duck night. We chose well.

Seared and braised duck with sour cherry and apple sauce, bok choy and collards, and polenta.

Feels good to be drinking Fat Tire again.

Cherry Meringue Pie. Local sour cherries. Sorry lemon, you may have just gotten silver.
And if that weren't enough, I have been completely spoiled by other specialty made meals. The views haven't been too bad either.

Fresh venison marinated in a magical mixture including mustard, rosemary, garlic, cumin seed...served alongside slowroasted fingerling potatoes with garlic and rosemary, and local, freshly harvested grilled asparagus. It was even my second dinner of the evening and my plate was clean.

Shawn's Wild Cherry Wit homebrew. The 'last one'...until it is brewed again soon enough!

Sour Cherry Pie. Oh mama. Yes, I will gladly eat any dessert involving sour cherries.

My face in the store once I saw this in the beer case may have mimicked a small child on Christmas morning.

Jeeze, who would want to eat breakfast here anyway?

Fresh eggs, sunny side up, on top of chili pork handmade tamales, with fresh salsa. You could end your day right there and be okay with it.

In other news...
The sour cherries are starting to take shape! They form right at the back of the blossom there...

...and slowly break through as it sheds the blossom.

They're a comin'!

Miko has also been doing a fantastic job supervising every project performed on the orchard, as always.

He likes to make Ruthie feel protected too.
Usually doing it all in style.

So there you have it. Food building, food growing, food harvesting, food cooking, food eating, all around the clock. It's a tough life...but you wont hear any complaints from me.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

An Unbeetable Meal

I literally just had one of the best meals I have ever eaten. Or made. It had 4 ingredients. It was made in a trailer. It took 15 minutes. It was heaven. And I am still in awe.
Since I had just arrived to Paonia on Tuesday, I owed my friend Mark a visit who lives in Hotchkiss, the town next door. I have known Mark since high school since he was a farmer at Gaining Ground; a non-profit farm and food provider in Concord, MA at which I used to be a volunteer. He has since moved to Hotchkiss and is living with his family on ‘Thistle Whistle Farm’ where he grows everything you can imagine (or not even imagine) and sells it to his fellow community members and local restaurants. During my visit to him at a local market, I decided I could not pass up his beets that were handsomely clustered in a shallow tub of crisp cold water. I took them home excited to use them at some point this week.
Beets are what I like to call ‘Two-for’ Bonus Vegetables. Just like a winter squash with its seeds inside, you have two separate things to cook and look forward to enjoying with a beet; the leaves and the actual beet root. Both of these things completely different and extremely delicious, all the while conveniently packaged in one whole vegetable. It doesn’t get better!

I thought I would leave the beet roots to enjoy for another day (ya know, to spread out the deliciousness), so I focused on the leaves and stems for dinner. A splash of extra virgin olive oil went into my pan set over the humbly small gas burner, and it heated as I removed the leaves from the stems, washed them, and chopped the remaining stems into about a 1/2” dice. They went in the hot pan first, as they need a bit longer to cook down in comparison to their more delicate leaves. And just before I added the leaves, I added a minced garlic clove to the stems and stirred just until I could smell the garlic react to the heat. I tasted a stem piece that was untouched to garlic. I stopped chewing as my tongue finally got its first taste. Uh…what? Why is that beet stem so freaking delicious? I was a bit confused. It was already complex, seasoned, savory. It was unlike anything beet related thing I had ever eaten before. I chose to ignore this early epiphany, and added the leaves to wilt and cook down along with the stems and garlic.

Since we have more than 20 guinea hens romping around the orchard these days, we also have more than 150 guinea eggs to eat at our disposal. With that in mind, I decided to do one of my favorite things to make when I’m cooking down greens with any other vegetables. I like to make little indents in the greens right before they’re done cooking and I place one egg in each divot. Since there is a lot of steam being produced in the pan from the evaporating water on the washed greens, as well as what’s being released by the vegetable itself, I put a cover on the pan and let the eggs cook via the hot steam for maybe 3 minutes (longer if a bigger egg or cooler pan). And voila, you have perfectly cooked, runny yolk, eggs happily nestled in your cooked veggies ready to be eaten as an undoubtedly whole and nutritious meal.

Right before I got my plate, I reached for the salt and pepper to season the dish before I took my portion. For some reason though, I tasted it before seasoning just to see what we were dealing with here. I dropped the salt granules in my fingertips back into the salt bowl. It needed nothing. Absolutely nothing. And this wasn’t a “oh I wont put salt I because I want to be ‘good’ about watching my ‘sodium’” (whatever that means when people say it) No. No no. I honestly think a bit of salt is necessary in most dishes, especially vegetable based ones, to give some sort of umph to the flavors involved. Not here. In this case, I actually believed that even the slightest pinch of any additional seasoning would completely ruin the incredible flavor that was going on in my mouth. I quickly scooped some out into my bowl and sat down to savor every bite.

The beet component alone, as Ive already told you, was out of this world. With every bite I seriously started questioning myself about if I had added something to it when it was cooking. Did I black out as it was sautéing and forgot that I added chicken stock or salt or pepper or sugar or something? But the answer was No! The earthy, sweet, savory, hearty, robust flavors were 100% part of the pure beet itself. The garlic added a mild spice, and the egg on top…perfection. My fork broke the runny yolk, and the egg’s impressive, fresh and healthy orange center smothered the greens below, creating a convenient sauce to bring each of the 4 elements of the dish together. My plan was to have leftovers.

What a joke…the pan was clean in no time.
I had experienced a fresh food-gasm (I’m sorry…it’s the only way to justly describe it). Mark’s attentive care as a grower, along with the incredibly healthy, nutrient rich soil made those greens’ flavors miles away from anything I had ever eaten before. Not to mention that they left that soil not long before it entered my pan. And the eggs? They were laid this morning. From guinea hens that run around all day, eating the grasshoppers they love to eat that therefore keeps the orchard clean of the noisy pests.
Farm fresh food. There’s literally nothing like it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

April 29th

(This is a semi Part II of the post before this, 'Colorado at last', so you may want to start there)

Within the weeks before my departure date for Colorado, Elane would continually keep me updated with how the fruit blossoms were doing as spring approached and the fruit was emerging. 'This is looking to be an unbelievable fruit year. Everything is progressing at the right timing and rate...Apricots! Plums! Nectarines! Let alone all of the peaches, pears, cherries and apples!' All of the former fruit being ones that have not survived over the past years because of late spring freezes. The buds were looking to make bumper crops you would dream about; fruit practically dripping off the branches.

It sounded absolutely thrilling. With every positive update I would allow myself to get a little more excited for these potential buds. There were moments I would get ahead of myself; 'Apricot Jam...Apricot-Nectarine Jam...Apricot-Nectarine-Plum Jam!' Oh, the possibilities! But I always had to bring myself back down. Even though these ideas seemed within tangible reach, they were still purely fantasies.

This is because of the essence of what food production is. The world of farming is so fascinating to me because there is only so much you can control. You can read about all of the right things to do, follow trends, do exactly what worked the last time...and most of the times, that's what makes our food grow.

But then, there is that X factor. That powerful source of the unknown we like to call Mother Nature; a figure that will forever make you at her mercy.

If it were last year, you could talk about the 3 minute hail storm that damaged a large percentage of the surviving fruit. This thankfully didn't make them inedible, but rather less than attractive with their indents from the ice pellets. These imperfections denied them the ability to be sold as straight fruit at markets since they weren't as pristine looking as some customers would like their, say, perfectly globed apple to look like. Luckily, they were just fine for preserving and making juices and cider.

This year, however, Mother Nature had different plans. And it all came down to one night. One week before I left Massachusetts, the extended forecast for Paonia, CO projected an arrival of a cold front that was predicted to bring evening temperatures dangerously low...low enough to eliminate any and all of the fragile blossoms that were blanketing the orchard. That Thursday, April 29th, I think I checked the forecast every 1/2 hour, continually wanting my computer to tell me something different each time. I went to bed sending all of the warm energy I could gather within myself to those vulnerable little blossoms. But the next day, I woke up, and read only one number: 22.5. That's the number of degrees it went down to that night in Paonia. That's the number that wiped out almost the entire millions of blossoms that were happily on their way to a healthy growing cycle. I could. not. believe it.

After arriving here it was more than saddening to go around to clusters of trees and see the frost bitten blossoms that could-have-been. Some look completely dead, and others try to deceive by having a healthy looking flower, but with a dead fruit inside.

Both of these blossoms contain dead fruits inside (the one directly above my thumb and then my index finger), but look strikingly different

That long black stem piece is what would have grown to be a full cherry

BUT. And there is definitely a but. As the days have gone on we have found a few sole survivors. It looks like we will have some sour cherries pull through, along with some peaches and gala apples. Although it still will not be enough to sell at markets, we will at least have some to snack on ourselves, as well as a stash for me to make some new value added jarred products to sell at next season's early markets. A small ray of light in the dark - all was not lost (at least not 100%).

Paul said that the amount of surviving fruit we will get still depends how much the bears and squirrels munch on once the fruit gets sweet. I told him I would sleep out there within the trees myself and protect those few peaches with my life. They say to steer clear from a Mama bear with her cubs, but I pity the fool that tries to come between me and our surviving peaches.

A full blown freezer burnt peach blossom
A survivor! Although the exterior of the blossom was affected by the cold, the fruit inside lives on. You can even see the fuzziness of the stem growing out of the middle that translates to the fuzzy peach you find in the store.

A beautiful, healthy sour cherry-to-be!

The other positive that is coming from this is that we now have enough time and space to focus on a legitimate garden plot for us to try out growing vegetables for a change. I am in charge of its design, organization, and production, and I must say I go back and forth from being incredibly excited to incredibly intimidated. Being the definition of a Beginner with anything gardening, especially from scratch, I have been hastily trying to learn as much and as fast as I can as the growing season quickly approaches. So far Paul and I have decided on a specific place for the plot on the orchard, as well as the orientation, and have already done the first tilling of the soil. I made my seed order last week, and they should be arriving by the end of this week. I feel like a mother who is receiving her children via UPS. Those little guys don't know how much TLC is coming at them since I will do anything to have them succeed. All I ask for is that something edible comes out of the ground at some point in time. Alive. And well.

Laying down the Northwest corner marker while surveying the garden plot
Paul tilling up the soil

Miko doing his part and contributing some of his own tilling. Apparently he finds this humorous too as he sticks his tongue out at me.

Will there be challenges? Failures? Mishaps? Learning experiences? Aching backs and piles of weeds? Oh god yes. And hopefully I will have a plate full of delicious vegetables at the end of the day as my reward. I sense a legitimate tango is before me with Mother Nature and her gimmicks, but needless to say I'm ready to dance.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Colorado at last

After over 2000 miles on the road, a book on tape, numerous bathroom and snack breaks, millions of sacrificed bugs on the windshield, and of course, fantastic culinary pit-stops, we finally arrived in Colorado after our four day driving adventure.

Although still one stop away from our final destination, we spent some time in Denver to explore the city, meet up with my good friend Charlotte, enjoy the mountains and eat some great food. After a few review readings, it seemed clear that Rioja in downtown Denver was the place for us to go. It boasts an impressive mediterranean menu that is hard to believe could be as good as it claims, seeing that landlocked Denver and anything in the mediterranean seem like worlds apart. Ah, but how wrong such assumptions can be sometimes, and we lucked out with having that be the case with our Rioja experience. Just like at Lucky's Cafe in Cleveland, you can safely assume that if it's on the menu, it was made in-house, including and beyond the pastas, cheeses, bread, and pastries.

Instead of the waiter bringing you a measly basket of one type of bread, you are presented with an enormous platter of a variety of breads from which you can choose. From kalamata olive baguettes to chevre biscuits to orange fennel rolls to smoked lavender slices, the meal could have ended right there and I would have been a happy woman. Of course, it only continued...

The chef thoughfully split this warm Indian curry Fregola salad on three plates for us to share. Toasted Sardinian pasta, cashews, golden raisins, roasted garlic and fennel naan bread, tomato-red onion-cucumber salad, honey lime yogurt

Hand made mozzarella, wrapped in smoked prosciutto, grilled bread, oven-dried tomatoes, arugula, green olive pistou. Yet another spectacular starter.

Charlotte's pick of Caprese Gnocchi: ricotta gnocchi, house made burrata cheese, herb tomato salad, almond-basil pesto, guanciale (although she opted out on the cured lamb cheek which is guanciale). So many summer flavors, clean and fresh.

My and Mom's choice of Artichoke Tortelloni: goat cheese and artichoke mousse stuffed pasta, artichoke broth, truffle essence, queso de mano cheese, chervil. Ah yes, and a fried artichoke chip on top. Delicate and immaculate flavors.

Chilled S’mores Pot de Crème: chocolate custard, house made graham crackers, brûleéd house made marshmallow. Too bad licking plates in public isn't polite. I was dangerously on the edge.

Meyer lemon sabayon tart, pine nut cornmeal crust, Meyer lemon confit, pine nut brittle ice cream, lemon cello granita. Citrusss!!

On the wings of yet another great destination dinner, we finally set out for Paonia, the endpoint of our drive. It was fantastic to pull up the orchard driveway again after my winter hiatus, as we were slowly being exposed to the familiar mountains, valley, and landscape that haven't changed one bit. I was back at my 'special place', and knowing that there was a whole summer ahead of enjoying the area only made the arrival that much more exciting.

Since returning from the orchard for the first time this past fall (of '09), I felt like this place only existed in my stories and pictures as I described it to all of the people close to me at home. 'No really, I swear, that's how beautiful it is! And that's really where I was fifteen feet from a bear!' I guess that's why having my mom here was so special on many different levels; for one I was able to share this place with someone new, and also that now she can attest that it really exists! I think she also realized what a gem of a spot it is from her time here too, seeing that on our full day of exploring around she, Elane, and I did a walking tour of the orchard as well as up along the ditch where the mountain water irrigation water flows down into the orchard. I'm not sure how many times she said 'This is the best walk I've ever been on!' But it was a lot.

We munched on wild asparagus growing along the ditch for a mid-walk fuel up.

Just relax, will ya?

Probably having a fantastic conversation with Miko. Instantly BFFs.

But alas, all good things have to come to an end at one point or another. Our road trip west was finally complete. And as I dropped my mom off at the Grand Junction airport, I knew that the 'arrival' chapter of my summer in Colorado had closed; a trip that exceeded our expectations and will be one for the record books. But as I drove back down the highway back toward the green mesas and snow capped mountains, I knew there was still much more ahead of me. Much of course, revolving around food.

Much of course, placed on the fate of that darn fruit.

(for 'Part II' continue on to the post titled 'April 29th')