05 November 2011

A Deliciously Redneck Autumn

End of September: Violet on Orange

The seasons are turning. Just when I thought nothing could be more beautiful than summer on the farm, autumn proves me wrong.  Our scenery was just green and lush and moist and overnight turned brown and dry.  The air is crisp, even biting in the morning when Viv and I take our walks down to the creek, which is also showcasing its fall outfit of orange and goldenrod wildflowers.  We walk down the waterway through the gold and burnt orange patchwork of the corn and soy quilt.  The corn talks to us in its crunchy, rustling voice and we might respond if we weren’t so busy singing Old McDonalds Farm, Viv’s new song of choice, which is quite the feat since I’m singing it while walking a with a 30-pound two-year-old strapped to my back.  It feels like I have a baby goat in the backpack.  I’m definitely winded by the time we get to the creek and have sung about every farm animal I know (which is like four that I’ve set on repeat), but like the turning of the seasons, I know she, too, will be turning, turning into a little girl that soon won’t fit on my back.  So I savor the moments she sits in that backpack, now bundled in her fleece and bunny hat while rubbing her dirty blankie on her nose and singing her E-I-E-I-Ohs with a binkie hanging out the side of her mouth like a little colorful cigar.

Despite the turn in season, our tomatoes are still producing.  And the hornworms are still destroying.  First frost has yet to hit and the cooler weather seems to have benefitted the tomatoes that now appear to be in perfect condition—no splits, no bruises, no funky smells looming underneath the plants as I pick.  More tomatoes does mean more canning (sigh), but I’m grateful considering our low yield in the hotter months.  It also means I have to watch Viv every second around the tomato harvest.  I came in from the garden one morning to find her eating her breakfast—a large Italian heirloom tomato that had to have weighed at least a pound.  She was sitting at our picnic table eating it as one would eat an apple.  Although I had been reserving that perfect tomato for canning, I was so impressed with the precision in which she devoured it, I sat and watched her eat the whole thing.  It also spared me the preparation of her eggs or oatmeal.

The new chill in the air brought the eggplant production to a screeching halt and I was actually thankful.  After grilling, frying, braising, roasting, drying, and even preserving a batch under oil, I’ve had my fill.  However, the peppers are troopers.  I’m still bringing in baskets of sweet, bell, and hot peppers.  And we’ve officially harvested thirteen Fatali Peppers.  They rank as one of the hottest peppers in the world and clearly are not native to this area, which makes it a wonder that we can raise these plants, but not corn and beans.  We will not be consuming the Fatalis as the Hungarian Hot peppers, which rank much lower on the Scoville scale, are hot enough for the both of us.  These are for my brother-in-law, Andy, who has a penchant for piquante and can pop one of the Hungarian Peppers in his mouth as though it were a piece of candy.  I hope he breaks a sweat as Nick had to start about fifty plants to get the handful that produced.  The Hungarian hot peppers are prolific and have provided pepper relish, hot pepper jelly, smoked paprika, and even our house hot sauce.  Come over on hot sauce makin’ day if you need your sinuses cleared.  The kitchen is like Bikram for your nose.

Now that the weather has cooled, it’s exciting to prepare end-of-summer crops in fall fashion.  I avoided the oven during steamy August, but September (ah, I love September) allows for all of the cozier, warmer dishes one can prepare with the nightshades.  After canning a bunch of tomatoes, the leftover puree gave way to a rich tomato Parmesan risotto.  That remaining risotto was stuffed into red bell peppers along with some Italian sausage.   And the sausage that didn’t go into the peppers ended up in the final--I swear to god the final--eggplant dish: stuffed eggplants.  We have lots of sweet Italian peppers.  They made a lovely Calabrian chicken along with onions, garlic, potatoes and pepperoncini.  Roasted and paired with feta we enjoyed some great crostini and rustic sandwiches along.  And on a Sunday night on which we were all very tired, they made a humble but pungent garlic red pepper pesto lightly tossed in capellini with generous Parmesan and ground pepperoncini.  We ate our fill and then couldn’t kiss for at least twenty-four hours due to the awful garlic dragon breath.  Worth it.

We have pounds and pounds and more pounds of squash: Delicata, Butternut, Acorn, Hubbard.  I have to practically go on safari to retrieve them from the jungle of vines in the squash beds.  We’ve had butternut bisque with sage, butternut bisque with peppers and kale, butternut bisque with fingerling potatoes and bacon.  All in all, we’ve already had our share of butternut bisque. 

The potatoes have all found a humid home in boxes of dirt in the root cellar.  When the cupboard is looking bare, it’s a nice surprise to remember the inventory of potatoes in the basement.  The blue potatoes are beautiful. Sliced, they look like cross-sections of amethyst geodes.  I make the yellow ones in the cast iron skillet, but to add some decadence, I crack eggs over the top and baked them for ten minutes.  When sliced and served, the yolks yield a rich sauce that nicely compliments the crispy potato base.  The gourmet French fingerling is everything they were advertised to be in the Seed Savers Exchange order form description.  They are silky and firm with a delicious buttery flavor.  And one evening when we had very few ingredients in the pantry, I fetched a good amount of them from the root cellar and after the millennia it takes to wash and peel them, fried them with bacon and garlic and poured in a half gallon of our creamy, local milk for a very basic but savory chowder garnished with plenty of fresh parsley.

Speaking of parsley, our herb bed is in full swing—a fragrant medley of rosemary, coriander, parsley, and sage.  The rosemary has been particularly enticing with its Christmas-y smell and inspired a series of braising experiments, most notably the rosemary-maple short ribs braised in a porter sauce and the rosemary-pear whole chicken braised in a white wine butter sauce.  I spent a Friday night engulfed in Molly Stevens book, All About Braising, and have become a braising fool.  Our freshly picked herbs really added excellent flavor to the experiments, but as the temperature has plummeted, we’ve pulled in most of the herbs and now have numerous strands of coriander, rosemary, oregano, basil, parsley, and sage hanging in the basement to dry before we package them for winter.  They made a nice addition to the onions and garlic we pulled in from the haymow weeks ago.  Our formerly Blair Witch basement is now the perfect venue for a Wiccan ceremony.  Not sure which is scarier. 

The autumn garden is a pleasant change from the barely manageable summer garden.  The falling leaves have saved me mulching efforts.  The fall crops are approaching their peak as the summer crops slowly decline. Each time I step outside, I think ‘violet on orange’.  The burnt soybeans, camel-colored corn, and golden leaves are vibrant against a violet-grey autumn sky.  The vista from my kitchen window is a Van Gogh painting of swirling browns, golds, and oranges, topped with dancing purples and thick greys.  When I squint, it turns into a Rothko— just violet on orange.  Who would have known I would have world-class artwork above my kitchen sink on the modest salaries of a teacher and a stay-at-home mom/gardener? 


End of October: Blue on Yellow

Just weeks ago Vivienne and I made our way to the creek each morning among the browned corn and soy.  As the industrial farming harvest season comes to an end, the corn and soy ocean surrounding our rural island is gone.  It’s as though the tide went out.  In the weeks it took for them to disappear, the wildflowers by the creek have also gone, and the baby I carried on my back turned into a big girl who can lead me to the creek on her own.  She’s not quite two and has a better sense of direction than her mother, although that’s not saying much.    

Now that the corn and beans have been harvested, we have visitors.  The bugs that lost their homes in the surrounding fields are trying to take residence in ours.  The primary invaders are the lady bugs, which are harmless, which does not mean they belong in the house, the shower, or the bed.  Any bug in my bed is completely unnerving and adds fuel to my irrational bug behavior.  So, I feel my daily vacuuming of the ceiling during those first few weeks after the advent of harvest was completely warranted.   I love feeling like a deranged housewife.

The squash is still producing, but not as heavily as a month ago.  After many squash taste-tests, we’ve decided that the acorn has superior flavor while the butternut has superior texture.  The butternut is an excellent candidate for soups, muffins, and pies (you can use butternut squash in pumpkin recipes).  The acorn, roasted and mashed with butter, brown sugar, and kosher salt makes a killer side dish. 

We had a quintessentially fall pasta with squash and sausage in a brown-butter sage sauce, which is definitely my go-to fall sauce.  The squash must be peeled and sautéed in oil before it can be added to the pasta with the other ingredients.  Learn from my mistake—it’s easier to peel a butternut squash with a vegetable peeler than the ridged acorn squash.  I realize that should have been apparent to me without having to commit the error. 

Our favorite use for squash is gnocchi.  Traditionally, gnocchi are small dumplings made with potato.  While I’ll take the occasional bite of someone else’s gnocchi, it isn’t a dish I typically order, let alone make at home.  I think my sister was genetically assigned all the appreciation for gnocchi. And sleeping. That girl loves gnocchi almost as much as a good nap.  But when made with roasted squash, gnocchi speaks to me.  And when covered in the brown butter sage sauce, it sings.  I’ve made them with both butternut and acorn squash.  The color is definitely prettier with the butternut, but I’m still partial to the flavor of the acorn.  They only require two ingredients: flour and cooked squash.  I’ve experimented with the ratio of flour to squash.  It varies from a 1:1 ratio of cups of squash to cups of flour to a 1:2 ratio.  The acorn squash requires more flour, the butternut less.  Too much flour creates tough gnocchi, but too little makes the dough very difficult to handle and a mushy gnocchi. And nobody wants a mushy gnocchi.  I create the gnocchi in small batches adding just enough flour to make quarter-sized dumplings, then roll it in flour, place it on a parchment-lined baking sheet so they don’t stick, and make ridges on the top with the tines of a fork.  They do take a little work, but if you are on a tight budget and are a foodie at heart, it’s worth it.  They keep their shape best in the refrigerator until boiled in salted water for 10-15 minutes, removed from the water with a slotted spoon, and gently placed in a colander to drain—they’re delicate.  Then after plating, a drizzle of the brown-butter sage sauce, a dusting of parmesan, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and they’re ready to go.  Pillows of flavor. 

The brown-butter sage sauce is easy: brown the butter with a handful of halved sage leaves.  The butter browns right as the sage becomes crispy, which is a lovely garnish.  The entire flavor has been infused into the butter, but the crispiness is a nice contrast to the chewy gnocchi. And, well,  it just looks pretty.         

While I expected the tomato production to halt weeks ago, it didn’t and the vines were heavy with fruit after neglect.  Late in October my mother-in-law, in her generous nature, offered to can the late harvest on her days off.  In several days she basically doubled the efforts of my couple months—and much more gracefully, may I add.  She makes up in finesse what I have in ambition.  I skinned and quartered a few last quarts and threw them in the freezer for a quick sauce and said good-bye to the tomatoes and their mockery for a while. 

In addition to the late tomatoes, I found a dozen or so late eggplant.  While part of me wanted to walk by and leave them on the vines, my heart just wouldn’t let me.  As sick as I was of eggplant, my love runs too deep.  Nick was pleased with my decision as he came home to eggplant parm for dinner layered with fresh ricotta made that day with our extra milk.  It’s always a winner—even after the eggplant deluge of August.

Our greens are in abundance: a variety of lettuces and arugula, chard, and kale.  The lettuces are tender and crisp and range in color from bright mint green to deep burgundy.  The salads are beautiful.  When you only eat fresh salads in season, it truly is a treat.  We have a large salad every night with dinner dressed with a roasted red pepper dressing made from the remaining Jimmy Nardellos and Marconis.  The pepper plants are looking sad, but the sweet Italian red peppers are still producing by the handful.  And amazingly enough, the Fatalis, a tropical plant, have yielded dozens and dozens of peculiar little orange hot peppers.  And from the few who were brave enough to try them, I was told they are hot. Dangerously hot. 

I enjoy the kale, probably more than most people.  It’s texture really holds up when sautéed with olive oil, garlic, and pepperoncini, unlike spinach that typically turns into a wet lump.  It’s a great accompaniment to Italian sausage, tossed with pasta, or thrown into soups.  I like to use it in place of escarole for the traditional Italian meal of sausage, escarole, and beans. 

When Nick and I daydream of our future homestead, we envision small livestock and fruit and nut trees.  However, the planting or transplanting of fruit and nut trees is not in accordance with our landlord/tenant agreement—or what I like to call, the ‘Nick, don’t piss off your dad’ agreement.  While we wait on the reworking of our contract, Nick found a walnut spot for us to forage.  A little note about foraging:  if like me, you were raised in the affluent suburbs by middle-class educated parents who worked hard to put you through college and travel the world, perhaps don’t tell them that you went walnut foraging. Or any kind of foraging.  That is unless you want them to look at you like you have two heads.  Again, this is probably apparent to most people without having to make that mistake.  Although having committed the error, I can now write down the word foraging on the until-now blank list of things that make my mother speechless.  And I’m not sure forage is even the right word anyways since it wasn’t technically wilderness in which we were collecting walnuts; it was my father-in-law’s best friend’s yard.  Although as far as my upbringing is concerned, his wooded lot would fall more in the wilderness category than yard.  Either way, he was generous enough to allow us to collect walnuts on his property, which is quite the process because the nut is encased in a husk.  The husk removal is very messy because the walnut juice gets all over your hands and clothes.  We actually had a lot of fun collecting them and removing the husks.  The juice and occasional maggot-infested nut didn’t even bother me, but that may have been because I was already half in the walnut bag. 

After the collection and husk removal, they must cure for a few weeks in the sun before storing, which is the real fun—dragging them out of the garage and onto the lawn every morning and packing them up every night.  Ironically, the same visit in which I mentioned foraging to my mother, she had brought me a trunk full of groceries consisting of my favorite things: chips, salsa, hummus, cheese, wine, pepperoni, breads, and walnuts.  She’s wonderful.  Walnuts that were already collected, husked, cured, and shelled. For $5.  Maybe she’s onto something.

As October comes to a close, most of the fall crops are proving successful.  The tender lettuces and kales are delicious.  We’ve harvested at least one hundred squash.  The packet of small, French pumpkins did not germinate well, but I have three Cinderella pumpkins that have grown and are about to turn from their deep green to deep orange.  We have our own brand of fairytales here on the farm.  I even have one Marina di Chioggia squash, which I probably shouldn’t consider a victory, but had already given up on them early in the season.  Then, one day I was out collecting squash and there in the middle of the garden bed was a fully-grown, very lumpy, green-grey pumpkin-shaped squash that is the Marina di Chioggia.  It’s so ugly it’s beautiful.  I squealed in delight and immediately sent Nick a picture message.  I wonder if other wives send sexy squash pictures to their husbands.   

The turnip and rutabaga are just beginning to pop out of the ground—let the root vegetable experiments begin!  The multiple carrot cultivars, beets, and radishes are right on schedule.  And it’s a race to see if our flowering fall peas produce.  As we head into November, the garden has reduced greatly in size from the massive and unruly July beast.  It is a small, verdant patch among the dunes of sand-colored bare fields.  I would expect a caravan of camels in the distance if it weren’t for the green waterways and standard midwestern farmhouses and buildings in view.  My swirling Van Gogh painting above the sink now showcases brushstrokes of sandy browns and yellows and icy grey-blues.  And when I squint, I no longer see the September Rothko: Violet on Orange, but the October replacement: Blue on Yellow. 

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