Top 3 Veggies for Eat Some, Freeze Some

Overflowing Harvest Basket!

Overflowing Harvest Basket!

Wow my garden is overflowing!  The early season rain and late season heat have combined to produce a jungle out there!  As much as I love fresh vegetables in season, there is no way I can eat my way through this situation.  My friends, family, and co-workers are starting to dread my appearance with my “big bag of whatever was ripe that morning”.   While I revel in how easy it is to eat and share fresh amazing produce now, come winter the limited availability of locally raised, fresh organic produce makes me sad. So this is my survival tactic – eat now, freeze some for later. These are my top 3 veggies for this strategy:

#3.  Sweet Corn. It can be a challenge to find organic and sustainably grown sweet corn, and when I find it I buy a bunch. Who can argue against fresh picked corn, lightly steamed and served with creamy butter and sea salt, or soaked in the husk and grilled until the kernels caramelize into a nutty sweetness? That said, corn is pretty filling and I can only eat so much at once. So, while one group of ears is cooking, the other group is getting sliced off the cob, popped into freezer bags, and stacked into the freezer. I find that freezing the kernels from two ears of corn per bag provides the nearly perfect portion for winter chowders, sweet corn risotto, corn fritters, and anything else “corn”. The amazing thing is that this method seems to perfectly preserve that fresh corn “pop” and wonderful flavor.

#2.  Peppers. Peppers to me are as much of a stable as carrots, onions, and celery. I love fresh picked sweet peppers raw in my salads, dipped in hummus, or just to nibble on through the day. Peppers always seem to ripen in bulk, way more than I could ever eat before they spoil. So I eat some now, and the simply wash, chop, and freeze the rest. Although frozen peppers lose their fresh crunchy texture, they keep that summertime flavor and work perfectly in soups, stews, chili, and any other recipe that calls for peppers. One of my favorites is to use the frozen peppers in Chicken Cacciatore with a chicken from one of my local farmers.

#1 Tomatoes. Ok, I admit it, I am a tomato addict and can do an entire story just on this one fruit. I can eat tomatoes – so long as they are fresh and local – every single day and not tire of them. Even so, the prolific nature of my many tomato plants outpaces even my appetite, so while I enjoy fresh tomatoes raw in any way you can think of in season, I take a few extras and dice them and put them in the freezer. Like peppers, they will lose a little in texture, but the amazing fresh tomato taste remains and is awesome in the winter when mixed with pasta or used in any of a variety of soups and stews and sauces. My favorite winter soup is tomato, white bean, and rosemary. Even as I enjoy the slice of that Brandywine on a sandwich, I am thinking of that soup in my future as I put the remaining in the freezer.

So eat now, and eat later!  Enjoy being a locavore all year!

Recipe for a Rainy Day and a Giant Bulb of Fennel….

The Giant Fennel Bulb

The Giant Fennel Bulb

With the weather promising cold and rain today, last night I made a run down to my garden to see what might be primed for picking.  While rummaging through an overgrown patch of swiss chard, there I found this amazing bulb of fennel.  By amazing I mean nearly the size of my head.

Fennel is a wonderful, aromatic plant that is a member of the carrot family.  In ancient times it was revered by the Greeks and Romans both for its culinary as well as medicinal properties.   All parts of fennel are edible, the fronds are also lovely and you can even freeze it if you don’t mind the loss of texture.  Young fennel bulbs are tender and delicious raw in salads and pair wonderfully with many Italian dishes.  But I had no idea what to do with this giant bulb.  It’s roots were so impressive that it took  two hands and a lot of strength for me to pull it out – fennel is actually a perennial so it grows to survive and thrive no matter what the weather.   I could not imagine eating this giant raw.  After spending some time googling around ideas, I finally came up with my own inspiration:  fennel simmered until tender with olive oil, garlic and sweet red onions, then finished with fresh picked cherry tomatoes and swiss chard.  Served over pasta and topped with fresh parmesan….wonderful!  Here are the top things I learned in this process.

  1. Cleaning fennel takes some attention.  Dirt gets into all of the crevices of the bulb.  To get the grit out, I found that washing the bulb, slicing it thin, and then running the slices through my salad spinner worked great to get it all clean.  Remember to remove the core!
  2. Fennel and swiss chard are an AMAZING combination.  The sweet, aromatic anise flavor of the fennel pairs wonderfully with the bitter greens of the swiss chard.
  3. While any fresh tomato may do, I used whole cherry tomatoes.  The effect was lovely.  Intense tomato flavor, a little “pop”.  My personal favorite for this recipe are my home-grown organic gardener’s sweetheart tomatoes (thank you Fruition Seeds!).
  4. You don’t need a recipe.  Just put it together any way and in any combination that works for you.  My main advice is to layer the flavors and the cooking, starting with meat (Italian sausage or diced pancetta work great in this recipe) and longer cooking aromatics first (the fennel, onion, and garlic) and layering in the other ingredients based on their cooking time, with tender greens like swiss chard at the very end.
  5. This tastes amazing over your favorite pasta, rice, or grains!

    The end result:  Fennel, Tomato and Swiss Chard Sauce

    The end result: Fennel, Tomato and Swiss Chard Sauce

To find sources of swiss chard, tomatoes, and fennel near you, check out our on-line directory.  Enjoy a cool rainy day of locavore cooking and eating!

A Walk on the Wild Side

Happy Sheep!

Happy Sheep!

As the heat rose up on Saturday, July 18, more than 13 current and aspiring farmers traversed from across the state – from areas as far away as Binghamton and Scottsville – to join Don Wild at Wild Acres Family Farm in Great Valley NY (near Salamanca) to learn how to make better use of forages through small scale intensive pasture management.  tatiana Stanton from Cornell University also joined to discuss the on-farm study looking at the effect of tannins given off from grazing birdsfoot trefoil on parasitic worm populations in sheep. Rod Porter, from Kings AgriSeeds and a NOFA-NY Farmer, was available with information about various pasture seed mixes and types. I felt very lucky to be the NOFA-NY staff for this event.

Wild Acres Family Farm is a small diversified farm specializing in small ruminant management, multispecies grazing and vegetable production. Beautiful and lush flower gardens created a dramatic first impression as we walked towards the back of the farmstead to set up for the event. Under the welcome shade from a stand of trees, we heard the gentle clucking of Don’s laying hens and the soft baaaing of his ewes and lambs. In a small pasture nearby, a flock of meat chickens were busy enjoying their life on pasture, and next door to them was a small herd of miniature horses. In this idyllic valley setting our lesson began.

Farmers of all ages attended the day

Farmers of all ages attended the day

As we walked around the farm, Don surprised us all by showing that his core farm is only 1.5 acres. He has used that land to the maximum, and also bartered for use of some neighboring lands, showing the value of community to the farm and its neighbors. Through rotational grazing and effective monitoring and management of his pastures, Don demonstrated how he optimizes health in his sheep flock, reducing pest pressures while producing a highly nutritious forage diet.  He showed examples of expanding grazing capacity through incorporating small grains such as forage oats, as well as summer annuals and alternative forages, such as field peas, into an effective pasture plan.  tatiana shared her research on the use of birdsfoot trefoil and the seeding rates being tested on Don’s flock of lambs. Don discussed options for fence posts and permanent as well as temporary fencing options to make the best use of small spaces and rotating fields. As we walked we could see the pattern of re-growth on the pastures one, two, and three weeks out from its last grazing. Some key tips from Don:

    • Test your soil: test your soil before you seed – not all land, even when amended with materials such as lime, will be suitable for all types of forage.
    • Expect changes: your pasture composition will change through the year as well as from year to year depending on the weather and other factors, so pastures need to be monitored regularly.
    • Diversify: mixtures tend to do better than single cultivars when planting pastures. Different forages compliment each other and thrive at different times depending on the weather and changes in soil composition across a field.
    • Water: having a good watering system in place assures consistent pasture forage throughout a season. Don shared his easy and affordable solutions to watering pastures.
    • Have the right tools: fence tighteners, a digital volt meter, and a grazing stick are three basic and very valuable tools for managing fencing and monitoring pastures.  

      Field peas ready for grazing

      Field peas ready for grazing

At the end of the session we enjoyed refreshments under the shade of the trees along with some great question and answers from Don and tatiana. Many thanks to Don and family for hosting this event, and for tatiana for coming to share the latest research with us.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Lexington Community Garden.  Photo courtesy of Paul Minor

Lexington Community Garden. Photo courtesy of Paul Minor

One of the beautiful things about food and farming is that inspiration and gratitude are constant companions, unfettered by any definition of “on the clock”.

Last week during my summer vacation  I took the opportunity to visit with my good friend Judy Bennett and some of the urban gardens managed by the Rochester International Academy Interact Club, which is sponsored by the Rochester Northwest Rotary.  This is a unique 50 member club, comprised of refugees from many countries such as Congo, Eritrea, Nepal, Somalia, Thailand, Vietnam and Yemen. Students in the club worked in partnership with Foodlink and the Rochester City School District, and with a grant from Wegmans Food Markets, Inc and donations from Johnny’s Seeds to raise almost 5,000 vegetable plants this year in the greenhouse attached to the former Jefferson High School. The seedlings have been distributed to the Foodlink sponsored community gardens throughout the greater Rochester area, providing healthy, affordable produce to emergency food programs and a source of meaningful connection to the earth and their food for many refugees.

Judy took me on a visit to two of the gardens, the first behind the Calvary St Andrews Presbyterian Church off Averill Avenuein Rochester’s Southwedge neighborhood.  This church runs an emergency mobile food pantry, with donated food augmented by an array of fresh vegetables in season that are grown in the Foodlink-sponsored Alison Clarke Community Garden – an oasis of 18 beds of fresh produce growing behind the church.  The mobile pantry had just run that morning, and an abundance of swiss chard, kale, and collard greens had been picked and distributed.  We discussed the challenges of composting in city gardens and checked out the progress of an impressive plot of summer squashes and cucumbers.

Swiss Chard at the Alison Clarke Community Garden

Swiss Chard at the Alison Clarke Community Garden

From there we drove to the Foodlink sponsored gardens on Lexington Avenue.  Every time I visit a farm or garden I am inspired by the creative genius of farmers and gardeners, and this was no exception.  These community gardens are largely managed by Nepalize refugees. There on a vacant city lot, old walk-in coolers had been transformed into raised beds.   Instead of using conventional stakes and trellises to support the plants, tree branches were stuck in and around each raised bed, creating an amazing effect of a forest in the middle of the garden!  Around each bed the twisting limbs were green with slender tendrils of peas, pole beans, and cucumbers and carrying the weighty branches of tomatoes and their promise of ripe fruit to come.

Thank you Judy for this wonderful visit and for letting me see collaboration and inspiration in action, bringing healthy food to so many.

Bright Blue Skies with Fresh Snap Peas and Mint

Snap pea with blue skies

Snap pea with blue skies

Ahh, sweet sunshine!  A rare sighting this spring and early summer.  Perhaps the only two things thriving in my garden at the moment are snap peas and mint.  Ok, my lettuces and fennel and a scary amount of slugs are thriving too, but that is a story for another blog!

This is the time of year when I am heavy into foraging for my food from my garden, meadows, and woods.  This is not because I am a remarkably creative person, it is because I am really tired of making shopping lists, driving to the store, and well, shopping.

With the last of the asparagus picked and eaten, we are onto the next wave of garden bounty – peas – and in particular my favorite snap peas.  Peas are among the oldest cultivated vegetables, and there is evidence of cultivated peas in ancient Egyptian tombs!  There are more than 1000 varieties of peas in existence today.  Snap peas are unique in that their pods are edible as well as the sweet peas inside, and for those of us who are too impatient for a lot of shelling (although I do love shelled peas as well), snap peas are a great alternative as you can eat them pods and all.  When looking to enjoy snap peas, there are only 3 basic rules:

  • Buy fresh – if you don’t have a ready supply of peas bursting in your garden, you can find fresh snap peas at farmers markets, roadside stands and in your CSA basket this time of year – to find a farmer selling snap peas near you, check our on-line directory.  Just look for firm, glossy pods that are filled almost to bursting.
  • Keep them cold – in snap peas, the sugar converts to starch the way it does in corn, and keeping them cold helps slow down that process and will preserve their crispy texture and powerful nutrients.  Snap peas are a great source of vitamin C and K as well as folate, iron and protein.
  • Eat them soon – while most of the commercially grown pea crop is now sold canned, frozen and even dried, most people agree that snap peas are best fresh.  Fresh snap peas are best eaten within 3 days of picking.
Fresh mint

Fresh mint

What are some great ways to eat fresh snap peas? This is where the mint comes in.  There is nothing as lovely as snap peas with fresh mint.   Other wonderful accompaniments include lemon, garlic or green onions.  Snap peas can be cooked almost any way you can imagine – steamed, sautéed, fried, roasted.  The key is that however you cook them, fast is best as it retains the wonderful crisp texture of the pods.  For those who love preserving, snap peas can be pickled much like green beans.  For me, nothing beats eating fresh snap peas, straight from the garden, raw.

In addition to eating the snap peas, you can also enjoy the blossoms and leafy plant tips or pea shoots.  Just remember that ornamental “sweet peas” are NOT edible.  Another boon to planting snap peas is that like all legumes, peas are great for soil conditioning and are a tasty and wonderful addition to your garden crop rotation.  Enjoy this wonderful early summer treat!

What’s the Beef?

Beefers in grass fed Nirvana!  Thank you Fred Griffen of High Lonesome Farm!

Beefers in grass fed Nirvana! Thank you Fred Griffen of High Lonesome Farm in Cincinnatus, NY (Cortland County)

The minute people hear that I work for NOFA-NY, I start getting a lot of questions about food and farming. One of the most common questions I get is about beef – is grass fed beef and certified organic beef the same thing? To find the answer, I talked with Lisa Engelbert, a certification program administrator for NOFA-NY Certified Organic LLC—and also an experienced farmer at Englebert Certified Organic Farm.

Lisa explained that it’s important to remember that Certified Grass Fed and Certified Organic are two separate certification programs, although there is some overlap in their standards.  In fact, beef may be certified grass fed, certified organic, or both!

What does “Grass Fed” mean?  

To qualify as “grass-fed”, beef cattle must be raised and finished on a diet of 100% grass and grass-based feed over the animal’s lifetime, except for mother’s milk prior to weaning. All grain feed is prohibited, as is the use of antibiotics and synthetic growth hormones.  However, grass-fed cattle may be raised on pastures and hay fields where chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides have been applied. Forages—specifically alfalfa—may be genetically modified. Currently, the American Grass-fed Association maintains standards for larger producers, while the USDA Grass-Fed Program has standards for farms processing up to 50 animals per year. Verification under these programs is still evolving, and is not yet as stringent as procedures for certified organic beef.

What does “Certified Organic” mean?

To qualify as certified organic, the beef must come from animals that meet the USDA National Organic Program standards. Certified organic beef must be free of hormones and antibiotics, and come from cattle that are raised on certified organic land. They must be fed only organically grown grass, hay or grain.  Among other requirements, certified organic grass, hay or grain may not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They must also feed on managed pasture for the entire grazing season, and may not be confined 100 percent of the time in a barn or feedlot. Daily outdoor access is required during the non-grazing season. To qualify as organic beef, a calf must be managed organically from the last third of the mother cow’s pregnancy.  Certified organic beef may also be fed organic grain and is not required to be on a 100% grass and forage diet.

An organic beef farmer must meet rigid requirements for farm management and record keeping, and annual farm inspections are required. The verification process enforces strong standards established by the USDA National Organic Program, with financial penalties for farmers using fraudulent practices to market “certified organic” beef.

What if I want both 100% grass fed AND certified organic?

Certified organic, grass-fed beef will be labeled as both “certified organic” and “grass-fed,” having met the standards for both programs. Starting this year, NOFA-NY Certified Organic LLC is offering grass-fed certification to its certified organic beef and dairy farmers.

Remember, buy locally and know your farmer!

When you buy locally and know your farmer, you can ask the farmer how their beef is raised. In many cases you can arrange a visit to see the farm in operation.  Knowing your farmer, where your meat comes from and how it’s raised, are an important part of making the right choice for you and your family. And when you buy from a local farmer, you’re supporting an important contributor to your local economy!  To find a farmer near you, check out the NOFA-NY Food and Farm Guide.

Top 5 Ways to Enjoy Spring Asparagus

May Asparagus

My first purple asparagus of 2015 finally makes its appearance!

After months of foraging in my freezer for last year’s veggies, I made the joyful discovery of the first asparagus of the season making its way skyward.  What could be better than a perennial vegetable that has the good sense to ripen in Spring!  Simple, elegant, versatile asparagus!  Now I will be eating asparagus until it stops producing big thick spears and is ready to go to flower.

Asparagus does well with salty, savory, and fresh flavors.  If you have garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and salt and pepper on hand you can prepare asparagus in a variety of delicious ways.  Asparagus also pairs well with flavors of lemon and vinegar, and is great with chives (for a little bite), lemon balm (taste the sunshine), dill (a fresh lift), and tarragon (a little zip and depth).  It tastes great with eggs and egg based sauces.  You can blanch it and wrap it in prosciutto, steam it and sprinkle it with balsamic vinegar and sesame seeds. Cook it in a soup.  Put it in risotto.   It is even delicious pickled (and eaten during the dregs of winter on your favorite antipasto platter).  Fancy or simple, there are innumerable combinations and ways to enjoy asparagus.  Here are my top 5 favorites when it is at its peak freshness:

5.  Oven roasted – spread with a little olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper – roast in your oven at 425 degrees until it reaches the level of caramelization you love – usually around 10 minutes.

4.  Grilled – prepare the same as oven roasted, but toss on the grill and let it get just a bit charred to bring out a smoky sweetness.

3.  Sautéed – use olive oil or butter, toss in some minced garlic, be liberal with your salt and pepper, and drizzle with lemon juice when done.  Just a few minutes can bring out a bright green color and lovely crisp/tender meatiness to the spears.

2.  Simply steamed – just needs water!  Using some kind of steamer basket keeps the spears above the water and lets the steam do its work.  The length of time to steam asparagus varies with the thickness of the spears and your personal taste.  I tend to prefer my asparagus crisp, so I keep my steaming to 5 minutes or less.  But some folks prefer asparagus that has been steamed closer to 10 minutes.  Toss with your favorite toppings (see above for options) and serve.  Steaming makes asparagus very tender.

1. Raw  –   freshly snapped out of the garden and directly from hand to mouth, just-picked asparagus is so flavorful even the most stubborn asparagus hater can be transformed.   Children who visit my farm in springtime beg for this special treat.

If you don’t have your own asparagus patch, you can buy the freshest local, organic asparagus directly from area farmers at nearby farmers markets, farm stands, or you may even  get a bunch in your CSA box.  To find a farmer near you, you can check out the NOFA-NY Food and Farm Guide.

Enjoy Spring!

Summer in My Freezer

Biofillia Farm VeggiesGroundhog Day!  If any groundhog is daring to look, he is probably doubting that spring is right around the corner or even six weeks away.   The wind is howling outside and blankets of snow are sweeping over my fields, house, and barns.  My windows are shuttered and all the draft dodgers are stuffed in my door ways.  It seems like a long time since I have experienced sunlight on my face.  It’s time for some summer.

So I go and open my freezer, and there, in the light of the incandescent bulb, is summer.  Bags of golden sweet corn, red peppers, and all kinds of tomatoes.  Cubes of pesto and herbs.  Batches of blueberries and raspberries and strawberries, their lovely vibrant blues and reds sparkling back at me.   Too bad Mr. Winter – I am freeing summer from the freezer and sending it to my plate for dinner tonight!

Now don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy my share of root crops in the winter.  Beets, carrots, celery root, potatoes.  It’s all very nice.  But right around February is when I crave my summer back, and so to the freezer I go.

What’s for dinner tonight?  Maybe its sweet corn risotto with Herbs de Provence, the frozen kernels perfectly preserving the delectable pop and sweetness of August.    Maybe it’s summer pasta –  the most perfect, thin spaghetti made with locally grown organic grains, cooked al dente and finished off with those fresh frozen tomatoes and some of that pesto.  Maybe I’d like a taste of July – some of those berries served over yogurt or ice cream or maybe in some pancakes.   No matter what I choose, it brings back that day that it was harvested, perfectly ripe and warm from the summer sun. fresh rasberries

I used to think that eating local and organic food year round would be too hard or too expensive.  This year I finally cracked the code to make it easy and economical for me to eat local organic year round.  So many farmer’s markets are now operating all winter – and from my friendly neighborhood farmers I still get local organic eggs, root crops, and greens that are growing even now in high tunnels.  And thanks to squirreling away and freezing spring and summer bounty, I can enjoy the taste of summer just when I need it most!  Hello summer!  Time to eat!

How Many Root Veggies Does It Take To Make A Mermaid?

Anne in the Field

IMG_0709Freshly back from our 2015 Winter Conference,  many revelations, inspirations, and questions are rumbling through my mind.   It is at times mind boggling to process the range of science and creativity that one can experience at this conference. One minute I was hearing the legendary Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute, discuss the science of soil health and proposing a new paradigm in farming. The next I was walking past the display of wildly creative root vegetable creatures imagined by the children.

Voting at the membership meeting Voting at the membership meeting

While we are still counting the final numbers, we had well over 1,000 people attend more than 87 workshops and presentations over 3 days.   Someone suggested I should do the math on how many person-hours were involved in this conference. We had roughly 46,000 person-hours of learning, sharing, and fun created by about 18,000 person hours of planning, preparation, teaching, and serving.  …

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Fall For Brussels Sprouts

Dave the Dog with this year's harvest

Dave the Dog with this year’s harvest

According to some, there is only one good way to serve Brussels sprouts – on someone else’s plate.  Dave the Dog disagrees, and will faithfully guard and gratefully eat any you send his way.  I just recently began to understand his perspective.

As a child growing up, Brussels sprouts were in the “no thank you” category in my house – the one dish my mother would allow us to politely decline.   While the overly processed, canned, and severely boiled Brussels sprouts of my youth were hard to stomach, the truth is that Brussels sprouts are a nutritious and versatile vegetable, abundant in both Vitamin C and Vitamin K and containing many antioxidants.

Aside from being good for you, I have discovered that fresh Brussels sprouts are delicious!  Brussels sprouts can be prepared using many different methods and they do not require many ingredients or skillful cooking to bring out their flavor.  If you are still in doubt, here are my two favorite ways to prepare and eat Brussels sprouts.

This first method is an almost sure-fire way to convert even the most reluctant Brussels sprouts eater to a raving fan:  Brussels sprouts braised in cream.  Here is a simple recipe for this amazing dish.  All I can say is that whoever first decided to try simmering Brussels sprouts in cream was a culinary genius.  For very little effort, you end up with a dish that melts in your mouth – and it even smells good when it is cooking!  Some of my favorite on-line reviewer comments of this recipe include “bewitching”, “self righteously easy”, and “makes the toughest man purr like a kitten”.

The second method is the most versatile – roasted Brussels sprouts.  This gloriously simply approach involves just tossing your cleaned and trimmed Brussels sprouts with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasting them in a 400 degree oven for 35-40 minutes, until the outside is caramelized with some burnt-looking edges.  (Editor’s Note: It’s best to try to get your sprouts to be the same size so they will cook evenly–halving or quartering the larger ones to be about the same size as the smallest ones should do the trick.  Depending on the size of your sprouts, or if you’ve halved/quartered the bigger ones, you may find they are done in only 20 minutes.)  Roasting Brussels sprouts brings out their sweet, nutty goodness and creates a wonderful “tooth” with a tender inside and slightly crispy outside.  There are scores of variations to meet your mood and your taste – try roasting with balsamic vinegar and honey, with garlic and pancetta, with bacon and mustard, and with other root vegetables.  Pretty much your imagination is the only limitation with roasted Brussels sprouts.  Some of my favorite on-line comments about roasted Brussels sprouts include “effortless,” “fell in love,” and “tiny nuggets of joy.”

So next time you see those great stalks of Brussels sprouts at your farmers market or in your CSA box, go with confidence and happiness that you are soon to enjoy this delicious fall treat!  Dave the Dog guarantees it!

More to try:

Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad with Lemon and Pecorino, Food52 (use any  NY aged hard sheep’s milk cheese to locavore-ize it)

Crispy Fried Brussels Sprouts with Honey and Sriracha, Food52 (use NY honey and a local hot sauce)

Oregano Brussels Sprouts, 101 Cookbooks (great photos of prepping the vegetable, if you’re not accustomed to it)