Do It Yourself

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.

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.

My own personal chicken-based rebellion

NOTE:  This post is not sponsored. I just got curious and I had a coupon for this product.

I’ve been feeling a little rebellious, lately. Sassy, if you will. If you’re into astrology, you might have some logical explanation for why a Virgo who thrives on order has literally decided to thrust herself into Let’s Just See What Happens-land this year, but from my end, it just feels like it’s not the time to play it safe. Even when I cook, I’ve been throwing caution to the wind. I’m usually not good at things not coming out the way I want them to in the kitchen, so this is kind of a big step for me, this being okay with not being sure thing.

But, here we are.

I’ll admit, this chicken recipe was somewhat of a calculated risk, in that, I sort of knew that if the product was what I thought it was, it would probably not be awful. However, when I saw a coupon for a free package of Bush’s “Hummus Made Easy” product on the local grocery store app, I will also admit to not really reading the package before I grabbed it and threw it in my cart. I got a general sense that if you put the contents of the packet into a food processor with a can of chickpeas, you’d end up with something resembling hummus.

You guys, I didn’t want hummus. I’m a little sick of hummus right now. I thought about hummus and it just made me kind of sleepy.

But it was free! And I already took it home! So….. I literally thought about nothing but the fact that I didn’t want to make hummus with this stuff for like, a week. Every time my brain tried to go into “screen saver mode,” it would jump back to this free package of hummus mix that was sitting in the cupboard. Waiting.

I’m taking a really long time to tell this story. Sorry, I got a little stream of consciousness there.

Anyhoots, someone at work used the word “marinate” when talking about thinking about something for awhile before making a decision, and then it hit me. Yes! I’ll use it as a marinade. Because I’d been marinating on this whole, “what to do with the free hummus stuff” thing so long, I feel like it was sort of meant, you know what I mean? I finally read the ingredients and discovered that the list was really straightforward. Nothing to be creeped out about at all: Water, tahini, olive oil, garlic, salt, lemon juice, sugar, and a little citric acid.

My FoodKeepr app told me I had some veggies in the fridge that were about to not be edible anymore, so I gathered those up, along with a package of chicken thighs, and set about turning this stuff into actual food. Not hummus.

Equipment:
Cutting board
Knife
Gallon sized zip top bag
Baking dish/Casserole dish type thing

Ingredients:
1 package of Bush’s Hummus Made Easy, Classic Flavor*
4-6 bone in, skin on chicken thighs
2 cups (ish) large diced red potatoes
1 cup (ish) white button mushrooms (or whatever kind you have handy), sliced or cut into quarters
4-5 stalks green onion, peeled and trimmed, but otherwise left whole
Pan spray
salt & pepper

Instructions:

1. Preheat the oven to 400°. Spray your casserole dish with a little pan spray, and set aside.
2. Season both sides of each chicken thigh with a little salt and pepper. Add the whole package of Hummus Made Easy to the plastic bag, then toss the chicken thighs in. Seal it up and give it a good roll around, then stick it in the fridge to marinate while you prep your veggies, about 15-20 minutes.
3. Dice your potatoes and mushrooms, and trim/clean the green onions. Add the veggies to the baking dish, season with salt and pepper, and give them all a toss so they make friends with each other.
4. Arrange the marinated chicken thighs on top of the veggies, then drizzle the whatever is left of the marinade over everything.
5. Cover the chicken and veggies with foil and pop into the oven for 35-45 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. If you want the thighs to brown a little, remove the foil for the last 10 minutes of cooking.

I served this with some farro, but it would work with plain old rice, or even couscous. Bear in mind, these are the veggies I had to use up, but if you have a different combo, go for it. Or, if you want to use a different protein, that’s cool, too. I think the Southwest version would be especially tasty with some pork chops, sweet potatoes, chunked up white onion and large diced pasilla or ancho chili peppers.


On the tasty scale, I give this one a solid nine, only because I didn’t get the foil off the chicken in time and the skin wasn’t as brown and crispy as I like. But that marinade really brought so much flavor to the party without having to add a lot of anything else, and it mingled with the chicken and veggie juices in a really lovely way. On the difficulty/effort scale, this recipe comes out at around maybe a four. You can have it on the table in, I’d say, an hour and 15 minutes, at the most, which makes it great for week nights, especially if you’re a meal prepper and have some of the work done ahead of time. Give it a shot, and let me know what you think!

*It also comes in a Southwest flavor, and a roasted red pepper flavor, and I’m sure those would be just lovely, as well.

Kitchen Tech Saturday: My Kitchen

Hi folks!

Today’s Kitchen Tech Saturday is a little different. Today, I’m talking to you about a web page that doesn’t specifically have anything to do with food, or cooking, or food policy. It’s my Patreon page, and it’s a tool I’ve added to my toolbox to help hold me accountable for my consistency (or lack thereof, thus far).

I’ll tell you more about Patreon in a minute. But first, a little update on what’s going on with me.

I’ve been in Chicago since the end of February. I’ve been working part time to pay the bills, cooking as often as I can, and trying to get out into the world to experience the food culture of this Windy City, but not everything has gone exactly according to plan. Chicago is expensive, and I actually live pretty far outside of Chicago proper (25 miles from the nearest park and ride train station), so getting into and out of the city as much as I’d like has been prohibited by the cost of just… doing it. In other words, I can pay my bills, but not much else.

My time here in Chicago is coming to an end. I head back to Colorado for a week on April 30th, then onto the next adventure, hopefully somewhere in the Pacific Northwest or Northern California. I’ll be doing it all on a shoestring, and quite honestly, I’m not sure the money is going to stretch as far as I want the journey to go.  I’ve come to realize that if I want this blog to become the multi-media, multi-platform COMMUNITY that I’ve envisioned, I’m going to have to put more into it than just the extra $20 bucks I scrounge up here and there.

Enter, Patreon. It’s a website where creators of all types can invite micro-investors to be patrons of the work they’re doing. And when I say micro-investors, I’m talking… as low as $1 a month. How can $1 a month possibly help? Well, if 20 people invest $1 per month, I can create two recipe based blog posts that month. If another 10 people invest $10 per month, I can create two blog posts each week, PLUS be able to produce additional food policy, food activism, or food system related content for the blog and social media. I am very good at making dollars stretch, and those dollars… trust me, they add up.

Why Patreon? Because I want those who support me to be a reflection of the values of this blog. I have been approached with opportunities to do sponsored posts for products and to start running banner ads on my site. But… the products involved were not ones I believe in. They were made with ingredients that are harmful, and/or with processes that create damage to our bodies and/or our environment. I would not be able to control the advertisers promoted in the banner ads, and there are definitely companies whose values don’t align with what this blog is about.

Utilizing the Patreon platform requires a huge amount of trust… from both sides. I have to trust that my patrons will continue to support my work, as long as I continue to produce it. My patrons have to trust that I will consistently provide them with content that is relevant, informative, educational, and entertaining.

This is way bigger than fund-raising. This is me, setting a powerful intention to continue to create, come hell or high water, every week. This is me saying, “You can count on me.” This is you, saying, “You do the work, and I’ll continue to invest in content I enjoy and appreciate.”

It’s not easy to ask for… anything. I have friends who have built successful networks that support and promote their work, and I’ve always wondered what sort of magic it takes to put yourself out there like that. And then, of course, I realized there’s no magic. You just have to put yourself out there. Yes, like that.

I’ve built some more immediate rewards into the investment tiers… things such as the opportunity to more directly influence the development of content, exclusive access to patrons-only content, and personalized video walk-throughs. Notice something? All of those rewards require me to make content. I literally cannot stop creating without breaking our trust, and I’m not about to do that.

I have a big vision for what I’m Gonna Cook That! can be, and you’re a part of that.

Please click here to join me in building that future.

Kitchen Tech Saturday: Online Cooking Classes

Happy Weekend, my lovelies!

The big grocery store chain in the Chicago area, Jewel-Osco, is running a Monopoly game promotion right now. The cashier hands out game pieces according to how much you spend at check-out, with some items in the store being worth bonus pieces. Of course, we’ve probably all played a Monopoly game like this before. I know that the big prize, in this case, $1 million dollars, is likely not going to happen for me. Buuuut, since they’re handing me those game pieces anyway, I always pop them open to see if any of them are instant winners or have any good coupons. So far, I’ve won a free tub of potato salad, a free Shutterfly photo book, and two online cooking courses from Rouxbe Cooking School.

Kinda crazy, right? I’d never heard of Rouxbe, so of course I went poking around the interwebs for some reviews (here, here, and here, to name just a few). Turns out, Rouxbe has a pretty good reputation for offering great classes that cover a broad range of topics, from a beginner level plant-based cooking course, to basic knife skills, to food safety. A lot of the courses for home cooks are definitely things we covered in culinary school, but for home cooks who are looking to step up their game in the kitchen, I can definitely see the benefit in investing the time and money to really dig in. If you’re interested in checking out Rouxbe, they do offer a free trial, so you can see what you’re getting into before you drop the cash for the membership fee.

Obviously, this became a big ole rabbit hole for me, and I started looking around at other online cooking schools. A lot of the big names you’d expect to see came up in my search… Allrecipes.com, Sur la Table, America’s Test Kitchen, and one of the newest, Gordon Ramsay’s Master Class. Of the first three, Allrecipes.com and America’s Test Kitchen both offer some sort of free trial period, and Sur la Table provides a short preview of each class. The Rouxbe classes, as well as the other three mentioned have discussion boards available to bounce ideas and questions off of fellow students, and the Rouxbe classes offer instructor feedback, quizzes, and an actual grade at the end, which is nice if you really need the accountability to stay on track. All of them are self-paced, which means you can fit the classes into your week at your convenience. The Gordon Ramsay version is a set of 20 lessons for one set price, but the likelihood of getting direct feedback from Ramsay himself seems pretty slim.

If you’re ready for a little more of a challenge, want to dive deeper into a particular style of cuisine, or you’re looking to fine tune your basic kitchen skills, online cooking classes might be the next step for you. I guess my advice, as someone who’s shelled out a LOT of money for culinary school, would be to really do your research to find the online classes that best fit your budget, your learning style, and the amount of time you’re willing to commit. Some programs offer full access to all their classes for a membership fee up front that let you see the full course catalog, and then an additional cost associated with each class. Others will let you pay for classes as you take them. Some will provide a good amount of instructor feedback, and for others, the feedback comes primarily through discussions with other students. This can be a great way to really hone your skills, as long as you choose the program that’s right for you.

If you’ve taken any online cooking classes in the past, I’d love to hear your feedback. What site did you use? What class(es) did you take? What the experience beneficial? Do you still use what you learned?

I’d also like to offer one of my readers the chance to take a Rouxbe class, using one of my Monopoly prize codes. You’ll have to use the code by May 30th, and then you have 60 days from redemption to complete the course. To enter the giveaway, all you need to do is leave a comment here on this blog post telling me which one of the three available courses interests you most:

The Cook’s Roadmap

Wake up! Becoming a better cook doesn’t have to be a nightmare of sifting through endless online and offline content. Let Rouxbe’s guided instruction open your eyes to understanding the “world of cooking” — a set of puzzle pieces that can be rearranged to unlock the code to tastier, healthier and more nutritious food.

Plant-Based Cooking: Level 1

As kids, we’re told to eat our veggies as an important part of a healthy lifestyle. But what about quality and taste? Don’t panic. Take a step back and look at the big picture of cooking and health. This course will guide you through essential techniques and ingredients to help you incorporate more high-quality and surprisingly delicious plant-based dishes into your life.

Knife Skills

Start chopping! Learning to use a knife will radically change your kitchen experience and your health. The more comfortable you are cutting food, the more you will cut. The more you cut, the more you cook. The more you cook, the better you feel, so get chopping and change your life.

I’ll draw the winner on Friday, March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, and announce it both here and on Facebook (So make sure you follow me there, too!) on Saturday, March 18th by Noon, Central Standard Time. The winner will have 48 hours to contact me, or the prize is forfeit.

I’ve just signed up for the Plant-Based Cooking class. We’re headed into Spring, and that means all those delicious seasonal vegetables are about to start showing up in grocery stores and farmer’s market. What better way to get in that veggie state of mind?

Good luck to everyone who enters!