Culinary Bucket List

So long, for now.

This was my last week for the season at Dunbar Farms. This afternoon, after one last harvest day, and preparing one last Friday lunch for the crew, I’ll point the Honda back toward Colorado and make my way home for the summer to reconnect with friends, save up money for the rest of the year, and chef it up for the Boulder Food Rescue‘s Feast of Fermentation. I’m pretty excited to get back, and knowing I’ll be back at Dunbar sometime in October makes this not so much a goodbye, but more of a “See you later.”

I know I’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg of what this place has to teach me. Of course, there’s the farm stuff. The growing things, and harvesting things, and all the work that goes into taking care of it all in between. But other pieces of the puzzle are just starting to click into place. I have some research to do before I get back in the fall. I need to take some classes and dig up some books to help me identify all the wild plants that grow around here. I have a feeling I’m leaving a feast of both food and medicine un-utilized by simply not knowing what’s what. That needs to be remedied.

I’m leaving in the middle of perfecting an almost finished, but not quite there method for making tortillas from scratch out of the corn we grow here. Making the masa from the corn I milled is the easy part, but it’s the milling itself that still needs some tweaking. I hear rumors of another cheffy type person coming to stay. I’m hoping whoever it is can pick up the reigns on that one, but if not, that’s at the top of the list for when I get back.

 

In case I haven’t mentioned it, and you didn’t already know, Oregon is stunning. Of course, so is Colorado, but this is a different thing altogether. I’ve only just begun to explore the area, and I’m really looking forward to seeing more of the state upon my return.

Along with the people and the plants, animals live here, too! I haven’t gotten to spend much time with them this go around, so that’s on the list for my fall/winter stay, as well.

 

 

 

Our farm manager, Juan, and I have had some interesting discussions about U.S. immigration policy, work ethic, and the American way of life. He’s opened my eyes to just how differently those who are not native born see the country I’ve always called home. There’s a worker shortage on farms across Oregon this year. Looming questions about the future of immigration policy and more aggressive enforcement have frightened many of the undocumented workers who typically step up to take on the work of picking fruit, maintaining vineyards, and caring for livestock. Juan, who does have documentation, comments, “These are jobs Americans don’t want. Where are all the American people who say we take their jobs away? Why aren’t they asking for these jobs? They don’t really want to do the work. They just want to get mad and complain.”

I don’t have a good answer for him. Not yet. At least, not without admitting some hard truths about how some people view manual labor in general, and how disconnected many people are from the workers who grow their food, and the work it takes for that food to make it to their tables. I’m even more determined now to be a part of the solution… To be a voice that helps bring people together with their farmers and small batch producers to help promote relationships instead of just transactions. Even after laboring side by side for the past several weeks, Juan still isn’t even convinced I’ll be back in the fall. So, obviously, number one on the list is to just get my ass back here. There’s a burrito dinner bet riding on it, so you best believe I’m making good on my promise.

Speaking of food, I’ve heard it said this area “has zero food culture.” From what I’ve seen, though, it’s there if you know what you’re looking for. Much like in Colorado, a good bit of it seems to revolve around local craft breweries. Fine by me! From what I’ve experienced, not only is the beer good, but the food, made with ingredients often sourced from less than 100 miles away, is pretty damn tasty, as well.

Of course, I have a list for Denver, too, and I’m so excited to spend my summer with so many of my favorite people and places. But, it’s nice knowing there’s so much here worth coming back for.

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My Life as a Farmhand

I had a conversation recently with a good friend about relationships, and about how, be they platonic, familial, or romantic, the best way to go into them is asking, “What can I give?” vs. “What do I want?” You guys, I’m in a relationship with this farm, and that very bit of wisdom is what’s driving my experience here. Life as a farmhand has been a quite the gut check.

My job here is to steward things growing from the earth so they can feed people. If you think for one minute that means I’m in any way in charge– Mother Nature has some news for you. Come to this work looking for her to stroke your ego and make you feel important, and I’ve got a sense that you’ll walk away aching and disappointed. Join her cycle, ready to follow her lead, and, well, life as a farmhand becomes a whole different thing altogether.

Life as a farmhand is straightforward, and satisfying. The goalpost is constantly moving, but somehow, you don’t mind. Pull the weeds. Trim the vines.

The farm manager points, you go and do it. Cover the squash. There’s a beetle that likes to attack young squash plants. In their infancy, the beetles appetites are dangerous and destructive, and so we cover the plants with screening  that allows in sun and water, but somehow, keeps out the beetles. Killing the beetle is counterproductive, because later, after the plants get bigger and start to flower, that same beetle becomes a key pollinator–a vital part of the process. So, we temporarily deny them their favorite meal, only to reward them with full access later, when they have a job to do.

Life as a farmhand is delicious. With access to so much food, just steps outside your front door, there’s no end to what a curious and creative set of hands can create. If this farm isn’t growing it, chances are, the one just up the road will be. Farmer’s markets and roadside stands are full of first of the season this and end of the season that, and bumper crops of so much beautiful produce, it’s hard to know where to start. Admittedly, you may be too tired most days to vary the post-work meal routine very much. (For the first week or so, until my body got used to this new rhythm, the best I could do was some variation of black beans and whatever extra greens we’d brought in from harvest day, cooked together and eaten out of the same heavy, white bowl, with the same spoon, every afternoon.) Soon, though, you realize that the extra effort of really thinking it through rewards you with a sweet combination of satiety, pride, and restoration that becomes the answer to the question, “How will I get up and do it all again tomorrow?”

You think I’m speaking in hyperbole, but I don’t think I am. Those of you who’ve experienced the pleasure of eating what you’ve grown will get it, I believe.

Life as a farmhand is not romantic. If that’s the picture I’ve painted for you thus far, let me use this opportunity to correct that.

Life as a farmhand is dirty. There’s no escaping that. Everything you touch will be, is, or was once rooted to the earth. In order to tend to it, you have to be right there with it, touching the soil as you touch the plant. There are tools you will use, for sure, but as in cooking, also in farming– your best tools are your hands. From pulling out those tiny weeds by hand that want to snuggle right up to your plants, to sorting the rocks and uglies out of beans, to picking and washing fresh greens, to thinning the thick, ropy grape vines that grow what feels like a foot a week up in the vineyards, your hands are what get the work done. When you come back in from a day’s work, there’s dirt under your nails, in the hair not covered by a hat, and most certainly, on your clothes. Some days, your shower feels less like bathing and more like excavation.

Life as a farmhand is hard. I’ll admit, I’m not the smartest about my choice of clothing. I wear short sleeves, which, despite the use of sunscreen, leaves my arms to the mercy of the burn/tan/peel cycle the likes of which would probably cause any dermatologist to shiver in horror. I’m learning (after nearly passing out from dehydration one afternoon) that there’s no such thing as too much water while doing fieldwork. I’m learning that taking the extra ten minutes in the morning to run through a few simple stretches can mean the difference between counting the minutes and wishing I was dead around 9am, into my third hour of weeding… or being able to get into a rhythm that makes the time fly and the sound of Juan, the farm manager, whistling along to his Mexican radio station be the thing that lets my body and soul work together to get the job done. I’ve discovered the importance of a hat– for keeping the sun off my face, to catch the sweat coming from the top of my head, and to pull off and fan myself if the breeze isn’t breezy enough for my liking.

Life as a farmhand is good. I’m enjoying it so much more than I ever thought I would, and now that I’ve had this taste of it, I feel like my soul will constantly be tapping me on the shoulder, reminding me of this work.

Off I Grow!

Well, 2016 is done. It definitely had its ups and downs, both personally for me, and for the world. I, for one, am happy to see it in my rear view mirror. It wasn’t all bad, of course. I developed amazing friendships and learned a LOT about myself, and those are never bad things.

It’s time to look ahead, though. This is just a quick update to let you all know I have, indeed, hit the road. I left Colorado January 2nd, and am currently posted up in Taos, New Mexico. I’ll be here for about a week and a half, helping a friend with some winter chores for her little farm, making a day trip or two down to Santa Fe, and just generally learning as much as I can about the food and culture of the area while I’m here.

On my way here, heading down Highway 160, I came across this sign. I noticed it, drove past it, then felt that little voice inside me say, “Jordan. Go back and look again.”

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So I flipped a U-ey and went back. I looked again. I stared at that sign for a good five minutes. I know quite a few people who choose a word for themselves at the beginning of each year… something to help give direction and focus to their endeavors for the next 365 days. I’ve never really done that, but I think, at least for 2017, it’s a fairly apparent imperative (say that five times fast) that “Grow” is my word.

Here’s to growing… and learning about growing… and watching things grow.

I graduated!

So, after taking a week to just chill out and get caught up on some sleep, I thought it’d be good to get down some thoughts about this whole graduation thing.

This might be a little long and image heavy. I’ll try not to let it turn into a novel, though.

As one of our final assignments for my Capstone class, we had to do a personal reflection… Kind of a where did we start and where do we want to end up sort of thing. I talked about watching Julia Child, and about how I was obsessed with reading cookbooks, and cooking breakfast for my dad, and strawberry milk. The good news is, I didn’t cry. But, it really got me thinking about what comes next.  I’ll get to that in a minute, though.

As I’ve explained before, in order to graduate, students are required to develop a restaurant concept.  There are three classes we took to lead up to Capstone, where, ideally, we’d be wrapping up what we’ve already been working on all along. We took purchasing, menu management, and food & beverage operations classes to help us hone in on and refine each piece of the puzzle. In Capstone, we take all that work we’ve done and get it organized in a presentable format– something we could, theoretically, show investors or a bank (along with a lot of other stuff) to help get financing to actually open a restaurant.

There’s the fun stuff, like coming up with menu items, picking silverware and dishes, and designing the layout. Then, there’s the tedious, time consuming, real life stuff that actually takes up most of the project– the demographics…

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Labor costs and schedules…

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Employee policies…

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And standardized, fully costed recipes…

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It’s a LOT of work… a lot of late nights and anxiety attacks and deadlines. I was incredibly fortunate to have the same instructor for menu management and F&B Ops, because she got to know my concept really well. The basics were nailed down and looking good by the end of the menu class, which made the rest of it much easier. Not easy, just easier. I ultimately ended up with a project that took up two full 9×12, 24 page binders. I ran out of pages and had to stick entire sections into one pocket.

I also pushed myself a little harder in the menu department, and created two different versions of lunch, dinner, dessert, and beverages– one for Spring/Summer and another for Fall/Winter, so I could create some seasonal dishes.

I’m not going to post all of them here, but I’ll give you a peek at some screenshots of the Fall/Winter stuff…

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And then, on top of that, we also put together a professional portfolio. It contains, among other things, pictures of our food, examples from our restaurant concept to show menu design and recipe development, and costed menu items to show that we know how to cost out recipes. It’s something we can take with us on job interviews. It’s kind of hard to pick just 10 or 15 pictures that show what we can do, and our progression through culinary school. I honestly didn’t even remember cooking some of this stuff until I started going through the hundreds of pictures I’ve taken over the past two years.

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Amidst all that… we also have to go to several different departments on campus to get each of them to sign off on a sheet that basically says we understand we have to pay back our loans, we can’t take any equipment with us when we go, we don’t have any overdue library books, and we’ve submitted a final version of our resume to Career Services so they can help us find a job if we need them to. After all that, our Capstone instructor signs off, and then it goes to the Culinary School director to sign off… and THEN, after all that… we get our chef’s coat for graduation.

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I won’t lie. That part is pretty cool. The coats we wear in class are likely, at this point, stained and haven’t actually been white for several quarters. They don’t have our names on them, just the school logo, and none of them really ever seem to fit right. The graduation coat is lots nicer, fits better, and it’s just so white and new and pretty! I was torn between leaving it in the plastic forever and ever, or wearing it everywhere all the time.

We’re also required to pass an exit practical. It’s our cooking final that measures not just our ability to cook, but manage our time, demonstrate basic knife skills, work clean and organized, and our plate presentation skills. We have four hours to break down a chicken, complete seven different knife cuts, and then make Coq au Vin, broccoli with hollandaise sauce, glazed carrots, chateau potatoes, chardonnay chicken, rice pilaf, salad, cream of mushroom soup, and chocolate mousse. It’s a crazy morning, everyone is stressed, very few people actually do as well as they wanted, and nothing ever goes like you plan it. But, when you pass, it feels like FINALLY, the hard part is over.

Of course, it’s not, because after we get all of that done, we present at Portfolio Review. All graduates in every department, from culinary to graphic design, are given a 6′ x 3′ table to display their concept project, portfolio, examples of their work, resumes and business cards. By the time we’ve gotten to the actual venue, we were all just kinda giddy and sleep deprived. Most of us had been up all night cooking and fine tuning our table layouts and measuring to make sure it would all fit.

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I think I rearranged this whole thing at least three times before I finally got it how I wanted it. We had to turn in a table design in Capstone, but the reality of it vs. the picture we have in our head isn’t always the same thing.

My incredible, generous, patient, long suffering boyfriend came and picked me up at school so I could get my food home. (The school gives us $50 to spend with the store room so we don’t have to foot the whole bill ourselves.) We also had to swing by a friend’s house to borrow a cake plate, hit three different stores to find the rest of my display pieces, and go to two grocery stores for the rest of the food supplies. Then, I got home, inventoried everything, and started cooking. I cooked until around 1230am, slept until 4am, and then got up and did all the baking. Adam woke up to a crazy eyed lady, but he took it all in stride.

We got about 3/4 of the way to the venue before I realized I’d forgotten the deviled eggs for my display. So, we loaded everything out, and he drove all the way back home to get my eggs while I set up the rest of the table. Bless him. Seriously.

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From 10am to 1pm, we stood behind our tables answering questions from judges, potential employers, other students family members, cleaning people from the venue, and pretty much anyone else who came by to see our display. It wasn’t all that bad, except for the achy feet, and there were lots of friendly, familiar faces to help keep us from getting too bored or nervous. At 1pm, we had a little awards ceremony for culinary. They awarded first and second place for baking and pastry and for culinary. I was totally stunned when they called my name for 2nd place. At that point, it’s not really for a grade or anything, but it’s awesome to see that the judges, all instructors I’ve worked with throughout school, thought I’d done a good job.

And then, just like that, it was over. I was done with culinary school. They only do a walking ceremony every other quarter, so I’ll actually walk at the end of December, but I am officially a culinary school graduate now.

What’s next? Well… I have a lot of ideas floating around, some more concrete than others.

First and foremost is this blog. I want to get back to a regular publishing schedule. I have time during the day now to cook and write, so there aren’t any excuses not to. I am hoping to be able to start incorporating some video content at some point next year, not just here, but on social media platforms, as well. I want to have set days to publish here, as well as little quickies that will post to facebook, twitter, or instagram throughout the week. If anyone has suggestions, leave them in the comments below.

I’m hoping I’ll get to start interning in January (maybe sooner) at a local sustainable farming operation. Then, I’d like to do a little traveling to work on other organic/sustainable farm operations around the country. I’m also trying to figure out how to get the ball rolling on a pop up restaurant for the concept I created. I don’t want to commit to a full blown restaurant, ever. But, I thought it would be a great experience to actually get to serve my menu at least once. All the proceeds would go to a food/hunger related charity.

I also have a little project to work on in my hometown of Fort Smith, Arkansas. I’m hoping my hometown bestie Nikki and I will get to work on it together, provided I can get my butt down there enough to make it real. I don’t want to get into details now, but it’s food related, and hopefully an opportunity to reconnect with some old friends and bring something back to the town where I spent most of my childhood.

There are so many other things in my brain right now, but that could just be the post graduation excitement so I’m giving myself some time to really focus on what really speaks to me.

For those of you who have hung in there with me, thanks! For those of you who might be brand new to the blog, please stick around. There’s lots more to come!

 

Milking this for all it’s worth

I’m baaaaaaaaaaaack!

After a week off from blogging to wrap up Finals at school, I now have a week off of school so I can get back to blogging. Synchronicity? Or something. There’s a word for it.

Anyhoots, I’ve actually missed writing and I’m glad to be back to business.

I’ve decided it’s long past time for me to get started on that culinary bucket list. One of the items on the list was to start making my own almond milk. So… for the past couple months I’ve been buying up almonds and I now have quite the little herd and I go outside and milk them every– not buying it, are you?

Fine. I went and bought some almonds. Happy?

Seriously, though, I’m actually kind of embarrassed about how long it took me to tackle this particular item because it’s so freaking easy.

Equipment:
fine mesh strainer
cheesecloth (probably optional, but it actually made things a little easier)
medium sized bowl
spoon of some sort
blender

Ingredients:
almonds
water (to soak, plus more for the blender)

I used about 8 ounces of almonds, which got me about a pint of almond milk. I made the switch from cows milk to almond milk about three years ago, but one of my biggest pet peeves about buying it is that I don’t use it all before it goes bad. If you’re a regular drinker of almond milk, you know how long it takes for that to happen, but for some reason I just forget about it. I’m not a regular cereal eater, so unless I’m on one of my smoothie kicks, I really don’t use it all that much. It’s just one of those things I feel like I need to have around. Now that I know how to make my own, and make only enough for what I actually need for a couple days, I can cut the cord and stop relying on the stuff from the grocery store.

Instructions:
1. Soak your almonds in water at least overnight, or for as long as two days. The water should just cover the almonds. As they soak, they’ll absorb the water and get bigger and plumper. All the recipes I’ve read said the almond milk will be creamier the longer the almonds soak, so if that’s important to you remember that you’ll need a two day head start before you can actually make the milk.

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2. After they’ve soaked, you can just dump the whole she-bang, water and all, into your blender. Some recipes say to drain the almonds and start over with fresh water. I’m not sure why. I’ll try it that way next time and see if it makes a difference.

3. Pulse the blender a couple of times to break up the nuts a little, and then blend the water and almonds on high for a couple of minutes. The almonds should be pretty much pulverized, and the liquid should be… well… milky. If it looks a little too thick, you can add more water. I think I added about 1/3 of a cup.

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4. Line the fine mesh strainer with a pretty large square of cheese cloth, and then strain the liquid from the almond meal a little bit at a time. You can stir it with your spoon to get most of the liquid through, and then gather up the corners of the cheesecloth and squeeze the rest of the liquid out by hand. Just repeat that process until all the liquid has been strained.

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5. I drink mine plain, but if you want to add some flavor/sweetness, you can add a little vanilla extract and/or some agave nectar or maple syrup.

Now that I’ve tasted it, I think I really do like the homemade stuff better. I am going to play around with amounts of almonds and water and flavorings a little in the future, but as first batches go I’m pretty happy.

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Bear in mind, the home made stuff will only be good for 3-4 days, but since I’m doing this in smaller batches and “as needed,” that’s actually perfect for me.

And that, my friends, is how you milk an almond. Enjoy!

P.S. You can throw out the leftover almond meal, or hang onto it to add into baked goods or smoothies. I hung onto mine.