Farm to Table

Farmin’ Ain’t Easy

If you haven’t been following along on my Instagram (and really, why haven’t you?), then you may not know that last week, my little 2002 Honda Civic (which I’ve started to lovingly refer to as “The Tardis” because I’ve managed to cram an impossible amount of stuff in there and still be able to lay my seat back to sleep) and I made our way back to Oregon for an almost month-long stay at Dunbar Farms, a small, family owned, organic farm in Medford. I found the opportunity through WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), and, after a few phone calls, submitting my resume and waiting for references to be checked, I was invited to come out and get my hands in the dirt. And boy, have I.

I might not be a farmer, yet. In fact, I know I’m not. I get days off. I sometimes get to sleep in. If I don’t feel well, I can text my boss (the actual farmer) and let him know I’ll join the crew at 9am instead of 630am. An actual farmer gets to do none of those things. This farm is a living thing, and it doesn’t take, or give, a day off. Not really.

That’s one of the things I’ve learned. People don’t farm like this (organic, sustainable, in the rhythm that nature sets) because they want to become rich, or famous, or powerful. They do it because it’s in their DNA. I’ll tell you more about the folks who run Dunbar Farms in a future post, but suffice it to say, this beautiful spot in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley is a labor of love.

Mondays and Fridays here are harvest days, so they’re our busiest, longest days. We get to work harvesting at 630 in the morning. On Monday, we’re fulfilling wholesale orders for local restaurants and other commercial customers. On Friday, we handle CSA orders. On either, or both of those days, we’re also stocking the farm’s “honor barn.” They have a farm stand on the property, which carries everything from greens, to flours made from the farm’s wheat and corn, to dried beans and popcorn. It’s open 24/7, so locals can stop by at their convenience, grab what they need, and leave cash or a check in the cash box up front. On their honor. It’s amazing and kinda beautiful that it works out that way.

After we harvest, we bring everything back to the clean room to be washed, dried, bagged, weighed, and labeled. Commercial orders are delivered on Tuesdays. CSA orders are picked up Friday afternoon, and customers are encouraged to stay for a minute and enjoy a glass of wine, also made here at Dunbar under the Rocky Knoll label.

On the other days, we do things like thinning the carrot patch, which involves laying down at ground level so we can get up close and personal with the soil to thin out carrot starts and pull the tiniest of weeds before they have a chance to lay down a root system that could choke off the main crop; or pulling last year’s left over potato sprouts (and more weeds) out of this year’s onion fields.

It’s hard work, but not too hard, and quite honestly, pretty satisfying.

As I mentioned, Dunbar Farms grows beans, among other things, and one of the first things I got my hands on to cook was some of their black beans. I know black bean soup isn’t revolutionary, but I wanted to share the recipe I used to make the version that’s been serving as the main part of my dinner almost every night since I got here. It’s super easy, requires only a handful of budget friendly ingredients, and, paired with a pile of lightly dressed greens, serves as a pretty great post-harvest day supper. This recipe makes about four servings.

Equipment:
4 qt sauce pot
Knife and cutting board
Measuring cups
Stick blender, stand blender, or hand masher, whichever is available
Spoon for stirring

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups dried black beans, soaked in water overnight, drained
1/2 a large white or yellow onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
4-6 sprigs fresh thyme
1/4 cup of your favorite salsa
Salt, pepper, and any other seasoning you’d like, to taste

Cook the beans, onions, carrots, garlic, and thyme with enough water to cover by about 2 inches at a low boil for about an hour, or until the beans are cooked through. You may need to add a bit more water over the course of the cooking time to ensure the pot does not boil dry.

Pull out the thyme stems and discard. Reserve one cup of the cooked beans and veggies if you like to keep a little texture in your soup, like I do. If you’re using a stick blender, you can puree remaining beans and veg with the liquid right there in the pot. If you’re using a mixer, blend the remaining beans/veg/liquid in two batches until it reaches your desired consistency. If you’re using a masher, just mash away until, again, it reaches the consistency you like. You can add a little more water or some veggie stock as needed at any point to thin out the soup to your liking.

Add the reserved beans/veggies back into the pureed soup at this point, as well as the 1/4 cup of salsa, then season as you wish. We didn’t have much in the kitchen when I got here, but the tomatillo salsa I used provided a lot of great flavor so other than salt, mine didn’t need much. Cumin, chile powder, and/or fresh jalapeno would be nice additions, as well.

This soup holds well as leftovers, although it will thicken up in the fridge. At that point, you can pretend it’s bean hummus and eat it with pita or chips, or add more liquid to soup it up again.

Enjoy!

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#IFBC2016 Here I Come! (Also, a few tips from me to you…)

This post is one of (at least) three posts I’ll share about Sacramento IFBC 2016. In exchange for a discounted ticket, I agreed to share my own personal experience about IFBC on my blog.

I last attended IFBC (The International Food Bloggers Conference) two years ago, in Seattle. It was my first time going to any food blogger conference, and I was nervous as f*ckdge. I’d barely started writing, and was totally intimidated by all those other bloggers.

This year, the conference is in Sacramento. I’m still nervous, mostly because the last year of blogging hasn’t gone at all like I meant for it to, and because I am, once again, in a place where I’m looking for help in getting serious about doing this for real. Like, eventually, I’d like to pay the bills with it, for real.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the scope of what I talk about here on “I’m Gonna Cook That!” is evolving.  I’ve done a lot of thinking about what I really want this blog to be about… and the voice I want to have in The World– the world of food blogs, the food world, and the world at large. I believe this blog can be fun, and full of recipes, and reviews, and goofy conversation… but as often as possible, still tie in the overarching themes of how we connect to our food; our local, state, and national food systems; the future of food; and food justice issues.  I don’t want to get preachy, but I do want to take a stand. Out loud. On purpose.

So, as you can see, a Farm to Table themed IFBC couldn’t be more relevant.  This year, IFBC will address everything from sustainability, to reducing food waste, to alternative food sources. (Prepare yourselves. There will be more mentions of bugs on this blog.)

And now… a little advice to those bloggers who are in the place I was two years ago– pretty new to food blogging, definitely new to blogger conferences, and a little worried and overwhelmed about how to get the most out of my experience.

You’ll get lots of advice from other bloggers, all good and valuable, about bringing business cards, maybe a media sheet if you feel like you’re ready for that, dressing comfortably, getting your “pitch” ready, and all that jazz. You should read their advice, too. It’s worthy. But, I’m also going to share what I did to help just feel a little more in control, and a little more mentally and emotionally prepared.

  1. It’s ok to be nervous about all those new people. I have pretty major social anxiety, and it definitely takes effort to put myself out there and talk to strangers. At my first IFBC, everyone seemed to already know someone and I’ll admit to feeling a little out of place. So, start small. Just say hi to the person standing next to you. Every single blogger, vendor, chef, and speaker I worked up the courage to speak to was friendly, warm, gracious, and genuine. I promise you’ll get more out of your IFBC experience if you make a connection or two, if for no other reason than it gives you a friendly face to find in the crowd in those moments when you start feeling a little shaky. On the flip side, don’t feel bad about stepping away from the crowd… Get a drink of water, take a few deep breaths, do some positive self talk, and remind yourself that you are here to learn and grow, just like everyone else. You deserve to be here.
  2. That making connections thing? There’s another reason to do that. You will, invariably, find yourself feeling like you’re making Sophie’s Choice at some point in the conference, trying to decide between two sessions you REALLY want to attend. If you make “notes buddies” with someone who is attending one of them, you can agree to swap notes afterwards so neither of you feels like you missed out on some great information.
  3. On that note, try to have a plan about which sessions you’d like to attend and what you’d like to write about when you get home, but prepare to change your mind. In Seattle, at least twice I felt 100% committed to a particular session, only to come out of the one before it feeling led toward something totally different. Again, you can always ask someone to send you their notes later. If you feel called to a certain session, listen to that call. I don’t regret switching it up either time.
  4. Even if you don’t feel ready to dive head first into the world of big time marketing and vendor sponsorships, still take time to introduce yourself to the vendors whose products interest you. You never know what they’re looking for, and maybe your voice will turn out to be one they find valuable. I recommend doing your research about any vendors that stand out to you ahead of time to learn a little more about them. That way, you can decide exactly how you want to connect before you ever walk up to their booth or table. Plus, having specific questions to ask or observations to share always makes me feel a little less awkward.
  5. Finally, and maybe I’m being Captain Obvious here, but remember to have fun! The organizers of IFBC do a great job of not only putting together an informative, varied program, with lots of great speakers and teachers, but they also manage to make it a really good time. Learn everything you can without wearing yourself out, but don’t forget to exhale. Relax. Enjoy the food, and the drinks, and the opportunity to hang out with people who are just as obsessed with food as you are.

 

 

On the Farm, Off the Hook!

Have you ever watched someone bliss out over compost? I mean, really just go into an absolute state of eyes closed, face glowing, pure happiness talking about decomposing food scraps and coffee grounds and egg shells? Let me tell you, it’s a beautiful thing. I imagine that’s kinda what I look like when I get all wound up about some food thing. But then again, compost is also “some food thing.” And when you’re sitting at a table full of people who get that, the urge to stand up and do some sort of happy dance while yelling at the top of your lungs, “I HAVE FOUND MY PEOPLE!!!” is overwhelming.

What the heck am I on about?

Heroes Like Us, Yelp Denver, and Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union, along with some great local food and drink people including Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, Infinite Monkey Theorem, Upslope Brewing, DiFranco’s, The BSide Denver, and The Inventing Room, got together to put on the third  in a series of four dinners hosted by local community farms. The proceeds from each ticket sold go right back to the host farm, and once you’ve actually eaten dinner just feet away from the farm where the produce has been growing, and just chairs away from the people who have been growing it, you sort of start to feel warm and happy all over.

The August dinner was hosted by Sprout City Farms at Mountair Park Community Farm in Lakewood.  This farm has been at the park for a year, and has 35 CSA members who buy shares in the harvest and get a delicious box of whatever’s ready on a regular basis.

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As you can see, there was some weather coming, but before the worst of the rain storm blew through, we got a chance to walk around, check out the farm, and watch the chefs from DiFranco’s and The BSide work their magic with nothing more than their knives and some single burner camp stoves.

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Did I mention that the produce we enjoyed at dinner came right from this farm? I know that if it had been me cooking, it would have been impossible to keep me from wandering around looking for just one more wonderful, fresh bit of something to add. I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. I witnessed more than a few impromptu trips out to that beautiful herb bed (“Hey! They’ve got cinnamon basil!”) for some last minute touches.

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Speaking of dinner, check out this menu!

Passed Apps (DiFranco’s):

Goat Cheese Polenta Cake / charred tomato tomatillo chutney, basil vinaigrette

Pecorino Cheese Crisp / roasted beets, arugula, bacon

Course One (The BSide):
Hearty Greens Salad / haystack mountain chevre, Compton Acres plums, chinese mustard vinaigrette

Course Two (The BSide):
Hot Pepper Polenta / summer squash, roasted tomatillos, kokopelli peach basil chutney

Course Three (DiFranco’s):
Housemade Summer Squash Ravioli / braised pork, herbed butter citrus sauce

Dessert Course (The Inventing Room):
Mac Nut Brown Sugar Braised Pineapple Cake / local cherry nitro ice cream, exploding garden mint whipped cream, banana caramel

I can honestly say there wasn’t a single dish that didn’t make my mouth happy. What made me even happier, if that’s possible, was the conversation at my table. The first three courses were served family style, which, even if we hadn’t already been chatting up a storm (pun only sort of intended), would have pretty much forced us all to get to know each other.  Nothing like a big platter of braised pork to get the whole table buzzing! But really, although the food in front of us definitely created some conversation, it was the stories from the other folks at my table that really made my inner people junkie come out.

To my right was Liz, a shareholder in the CSA and also a member of the Community Advocacy Committee. We talked about urban homesteading, and her family’s long history of making the most of what’s available locally, be it here, or in her home state of Oregon. She was quick to correct me when I slipped up and call the Farm a “garden,” and rightly so.  A farm serves a community, just as the one at Mountair Park does, and every single member and volunteer at this farm beams when they talk about their involvement. Liz’s enthusiasm for homesteading, for utilizing what’s in season locally, and for helping anyone who wants to learn how to create meals worthy of all that beautiful produce, was infectious. Without a moment of hesitation I was ready to dig in and help her get the message out.

On my left was Emily, a teacher at Molholm Elementary (just a few blocks away from the farm), and her mom Kay. Emily told me she hadn’t ever really done much cooking, and was still learning how to cook with the goodies she gets in her CSA box. But, until she became a member at the farm she had never really been all that excited about trying. Now, if she gets a veggie she isn’t familiar with, she knows advice is just a phone call away. The staff and volunteers at Mountair Farm make themselves available for questions just like Emily’s, but also work proactively to organize classes and workshops to help their members stay connected to the farm and the food.

If you have access to a community farm, I can’t recommend enough that you find a way to get involved. Whether it’s by buying shares in the CSA, taking classes, volunteering, or any combination of those things, there’s absolutely nothing like being a part of something that is greater than the sum of its parts like a community farm can be. I’ve never met a farmer who wasn’t genuinely happy to share their knowledge, and there’s something kind of magical about being face to face with the person who grew your dinner (or lunch, or breakfast).  There’s nothing like putting your own hands in the dirt to help you learn about where your food comes from, and why it’s important to pay attention to how its grown and who’s growing it.

If you’re in the Denver area and you want to get in on this warm, fuzzy feeling, I recommend starting with the September On The Farm, Off the Hook Dinner. Ticket’s are $65, and even if all you’re going for is the food, it’s worth every penny, but I’ll bet you a dozen homemade biscuits and a jar of jam that you get way more out of the experience that just a happy belly. All the details are here. It’s the last one for the year, so don’t miss out!