Tuesday, September 28, 2010

seasons’ crux

A week ago I was leaning over the counter eating a yellow watermelon and finishing up Diana Gabaldon’s last book. The yellow watermelon tasted so sweet and so refreshing and it had a clean, fermenty smell, as well, and I imagined this elegant enclosed thing lying in a field on the end of a vine for so long – all this long hot summer, really –  in someone’s field – I think this one came from Woods’ in Brandon – growing larger and rounder, the delicious seed pod from that small yellow blossom, under the sun and the rain, to end up here in MY kitchen, satisfying MY hunger.
We take the mysteries of the growing season so much more for granted than we do the mysteries of fall. We eat directly off the vine, with very little preparation, because everything is so glorious it’s best just fresh. Plants are a great leveler, feeding rich and poor alike, in great houses and humble – in both you find people gnawing corn off the cob.

The mystery of this crux is that some of us are still picking basil off the bush, tomatoes off the vine, and cutting okra from its plant, too, even while mountainsides are turning crimson and gold and colored leaves rain off the trees over the deck and you have to pluck them out of the tarragon before you pick it. Our frost comes later and later.
...fried veggies...
That’s what we’ve been eating most of all this highly prolific summer – vegetables – and one of my favorite ways of preparing them is to fry them. Eggplant, green tomatoes, just-ripe tomatoes, zucchini, okra. I slice them (except I leave the okra whole), dip them into a tempura batter and fry them in lard that I rendered from pork fat I sourced at the WAWWEE (We Are What We Eat Eats) store in Gassetts, just this side of Chester, or in some butter and olive oil. Yum! I’m not tired of it yet.
Nor this: one fine afternoon a friend dropped off some bass that he’d filleted from fish he’d caught that morning. He and a friend leave Wallingford at 3AM for Lake Champlain and are back by 8, he said. With a plethora of fish. What a treasure. Thank you, Robert!
I dipped those beautifully cleaned filets in egg and then panko crumbs and fried them in olive oil and butter, but I could have dipped them into the tempura batter instead. 
Here’s a technique for that batter from Elizabeth David. It’s an excellent coating, and I think it’s the oil in the batter that keeps the coating on the food rather than in the grease:
Take 4 ounces of flour, about a cup, and put it into a bowl. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt, then gently and slowly whisk in “3/4 teacup of tepid water” until the mixture is about the consistency of somewhere between thick cream and half and half. Let it sit for awhile to let the gluten relax, and, when you’re ready to use it, whip one egg white and fold it in. Dip your food into it and fry it up.
Take advantage of that simplicity while you can, before the first frost, and then, while you wait for all those leaves to come off the trees, you might like to take to the road to see the autumn sights and refresh your palate with some un-New-England tastes before you settle into those long-simmered winter things.

...on the road...
I met friends at Mariam’s  Restaurant, which serves African and American Cuisine, located on the main street in downtown Windsor. Not only is it a beautiful ride from here to there – we took the most picturesque route from Echo Lake Inn on Rte 100 and wended our way through South Reading, Brownsville and Ascutney to the other side of the state – but it’s totally worthwhile: Where else can you get African – in this case Tanzanian – food in Vermont? We chose to order totally African, and chatted while the young couple – Ibrahim and Jennifer Mahem (he, originally from Tanzania, she from New Hampshire) –  prepared curried goat with rice, coconut cauliflower with chicken, a spicy mango stir fry, and a platter of chapatti, a creamy African flatbread. We tore off pieces of the chapatti in which to pincer and wrap bites of each entrée. The flavors were fabulous – spicy but not too hot – sharing many with Asian food – those of coriander, cinnamon, and cardamom.

We had a dessert orderer among us and we all noodled over what she should order. Deep Fried Ice Cream, she’d had before. Cheese cake... no. We paused at the Fried Plantains with ice cream, but ultimately settled on a Squash Bread Pudding. Wow! It was wonderful, a big plate of bright orange slathered with whipped cream. Three spoons went right to it, smothered gasps of goodness emitted. YUM.  Chef Ibrahim and Jennifer had the leisure – we were the only patrons that noon – to sit down and chat with us. It turned out that he had made up the dish a few days before, simply roasting a butternut squash with clove and cinnamon (“and mebbe some cardamom,” he guessed), a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of salt, then mashed it with heavy cream and poured it over cubes of challah, that lightly sweet and eggy, very light bread, with perhaps a trace of cardamom in itself. Then he baked it. “I was just experimenting,” he said, having the ingredients and combining them in a playful kind of way. It was sensational. I haven’t tried making it myself from these hints, but when I do I’ll let you know how it comes out. And if you try it, let me know what you did.
Mariam’s is open Monday through Saturday from 11AM to 9PM. Put it on your calendar, for you’re in for a treat. They also do catering.  Call them at 674-2662.
I was lucky enough a week or so ago to have my second lunch at Anjali Farm in South Londonderry. Now that’s a gorgeous ride from here, up 140 to 155 and then 100 through Londonderry and then 3 or 4 miles further to South Londonderry.
Lini Mazumdar cooked for maybe twenty of us who were attending a MetaYoga retreat at the restored train depot in that beautiful village. She made a lovely Raita, seemingly more silky and certainly more tasty than the ones I’ve made. She doesn’t make her own yogurt, but buys the excellent Butterwork’s Farm one that I do (available at the Co-op), whipping it up with cucumber, spearmint, cumin and cayenne, as well as salt and pepper and a touch of maple syrup. 
Too, I was totally captivated by the daal she served (admittedly, we had worked up quite an appetite in the morning yoga and aerobics session), which she described to me over the phone afterward: Cook the lentils, any kind (wash them 3 times) in water or chicken broth flavored with turmeric and minced ginger. Then sauté cumin seeds in oil, add onions and garlic and sauté until soft. Meanwhile, parboil vegetables which could include, as hers did, potatoes, cauliflower, chard, kale, carrots, and red cabbage, and when they are partially cooked add them to the lentils and cook until tender. If you make this thick it’s a stew; thin, a soup. She served hers with basmati rice.
She described how she made her dal but there was no accounting for how delicious it was. She also served a chicken curry, also exceptional, and a holy basil tea. I could not have made that, either. Something there is that goes from her hand to the food that does not translate into a recipe. Perhaps if I stood in her kitchen and watched over her shoulder I could translate it.
Anjali Farm is owned by Lini and her husband, Emmett Dunbar. Lini grows herbs and makes elixirs and tinctures she sells under the name Lotus Moon Medicinals. She is available, also, for Indian cooking lessons and catering for events. She will come to your house and cook for you and your friends or she will cook in her own kitchen and you can pick it up from there. Call for more info and/or directions at 824-4658. MetaYoga? 802-824-5064.
Finally, just a few days ago, I was headed west and stopped at Cinco Gringos just west of Castleton on Rte 4A in Hydeville. This is a small storefront in a small mall, brightly painted with Mexican scenes, owned by a young man named Michael Jakab, originally from Fair Haven, who is also the cook along with his girlfriend Alex Lamy who recently graduated from culinary school. Michael, on the other hand, majored in communications. No matter. The restaurant – mostly takeout, has been open since last December, and it’s time we heard about it and gave it a good try.
I asked Michael what he would recommend and he said “sweet potatoes”.  Okay, I said, in what form would he recommend that those sweet potatoes come in that I could eat in my car. Well, the least messy, he told me, would be quesadillas, and so I ordered sweet potato quesadillas. I waited ten minutes and there they were, eight large triangles of flour tortillas stuffed with cheddar and jack cheese and sweet potatoes, served with freshly made salsa and sour cream. They make their own salsa and guacamole – tons of it, Michael says – every morning.
There were nice tastes in these, but they were very filling and I could eat no more than four of them and that was stretching it a bit. Others, however, were glad to finish up my leavings. I’ll be back soon to try a burrito, or maybe even chicken mole’ tacos!
Cinco Gringos is open Tuesday through Saturday starting at 11AM through the evening hours. Sundays they open at 4. Closed Mondays. They also do some catering. 278-4090.
So, eat your veggies, Folks, while these fresh summer ones last, and then take a ride to enjoy this season and the international tastes offered by young cooks along the way.
this post was published as a Twice Bitten Column in the Rutland Herald on 09/28/10

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

little cows & spotted dogs

There’s nothing like taking a ride in this season when the color is coming on and the days are high and blue and breezy, and so, a few days ago, I drove up northwest of Brandon to Spotted Dog Farm. Once there, I surveyed the vistas and spied not one cow. In fact, I’d been talking to Susan and Chic Whiting for a good half hour and the only animal I’d encountered was the enthusiastic and eponymous spotted dog, himself named Hawk, and a spotted pony that we were leading down to a corral. Oh, the registered Irish Dexter Cattle were off in a field (a breezy wave of the hand), said Susan, but I was beginning to doubt it. This wasn’t Montana, for instance, where a beeve could wander miles in its quest for grass.

But darned near it! There were 35 or so head of those diminutive cattle on 185 acres, and they were clear and way back on the back forty. Finally some black- and cinnamon-colored dots began to detach themselves from the rising treeline of one field and, like a wave, rushed the length of the field, stopping in a clump five feet away from us, heads down, necks stretched, their round nostrils whiffing and blowing bubbles, half-masticated clumps of grass sticking out the sides of their faces. These were the yearlings, half a dozen of them or so, sequestered from the mammas and babies so they might begin to learn to wear a halter and come when called.

Susan and Chic see their operation ultimately with three aims – cattle for beef, milk, and burden. At this point the meat operation is in full swing – they are able to sell the beef from six of the animals a year at the Rutland Farmers’ Market, and soon will sell from their farm store, too.

As for milking them – that’s in the future for now, and Chic and Susan doubt they’ll milk for themselves, but will raise the cows to sell for milk. And for burden. For these little cows are gentle, smart, and trainable, and can be used in pairs as farm-teams to do farm work. They will eventually – beginning with these six – be halter-trained, and sold for this purpose, too.

A person or two could own one or two of these little cows and have their own – very creamy – milk, a team, if two, to help pull up stumps or do other farm work, and, eventually, with careful breeding, beef to eat. Gee whiz, and Gee Haw.

The little cattle – boxy like angus or Hereford, but slightly smaller than the Jersey, to my eye – are fully grass-fed, grazing rotationally all the time grass grows green, and eating that grass in the form of hay in the winter, during which they retain the freedom to roam about and snuffle out what winter fodder they might, yet with the option of the open-sided barn for protection against the elements. They have their treats, too, which consist of beet pulp, the stuff that is left after beets are crushed and wrung for their sugar, then dried and compressed. They also love alfalfa squares, and apples from the many apple trees on the property.
We walked back up to the house and I sat on the porch to make some notes.

The Whitings have been here since 2001, with the first of the Irish Dexters, living in a small trailer until their house was hauled up the road in three parts. It’s a pretty house – cape on one side and ranch – with that long porch – on the other, perched on a high gentle rise. There’s a view of the Adirondacks and the acres are hilly, and were overgrown until they began the process of pulling out the Buckthorne that had taken over. What had been 300 acres belonging to the Vermont Land Trust, had been divided into two pieces. It hadn’t been farmed in maybe fifty years and, when it had been, it was a dairy farm.

Working with the Vermont Land Trust has been invaluable to them, a liaison visiting once or twice a year to help keep them in compliance with Land Trust rules and regulations and to offer other kinds of help. It was he who connected them with Diane Heleba at the USDA office in Rutland.  Sally Eugair, from the same office, helped them with a Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP), to bolster up some areas and protect the wetland. EQUIP helped them deal with water quality. Cindy Watrous, from USDA, helped with a cattle nutritional program through a class that Susan took in Middlebury. And Willie Gibson and the Vermont Farm Viability Enhancement Program helped them produce a business plan.

“Networking is what it’s all about,” Susan says.

These names come as easily from their lips as from those of many other farmers I’ve talked to, because these people and agencies have been generous and helpful with their knowledge. And with that help, Chic and Susan have done an incredible job with infrastructure – water lines, barns, and berming of the land into paddocks – and growing a healthy herd.

“Wanna take the (John Deere) Gator and go find the main herd?” Chic asks, and I say an emphatic YES, having feared I’d taken up too much of their time already.

Well, shades of being 12 again. It’s been many many years since I’ve been on a tractor, and this little vehicle is much like one, though it has two seats and a small truck bed. Chic drives, I ride shotgun, and Susan is in the back. She slides off to open the many gates and close them behind us.

We wind up tippy, crooked little paths, around hills, down the farm path, all the way to the back of the farm, and there we find the main herd as we stop at one end of the field. After eyeing us quizzically from afar, the herd thunders bellowing to us down the length of the field. Some of them have wide and wickedly pointed horns. Those I do not approach, though I mix with some of the hornless mommas and babies.

Then Chic turns the Gator around and leads them out of that grazed paddock up to a nearer ungrazed one. It’s a slow start – they stand watching us at first but then notice that the gate is open and Susan and Chic are calling them and they suddenly thunder after us. It’s a wild race, the little truck with a slight lead as wild-eyed, wickedly horned beasts pursue us through the brush. Susan points out the hilly patches that they’ve cleared of buckthorn and other invasives. That’s a nice job, I say, imagining the challenge of it and long days spent outside doing this work. “It’s a good winter job,” says Susan. It’s the kind of  job, I know, that beaches you in the evening in front of a fire and crock-potted stew, feeling immense gratitude at having done real, hard, grown-up work!

The cattle are now contentedly grazing on the new grass, Susan fastens the gate behind us and we return to the house.

My friend, Ann Tiplady, from Red Houses Farm in Wallingford, constantly raises the issue, “Can one make a living raising beef cattle? And if one can’t, should one be occupying oneself in this manner?”
And so I ask the Whitings if they can make a living off this way of life.

“No,” is the answer to that. A rueful “no.” Susan works as a Physical Therapist at the Rutland Hospital, and Chic, a retired policeman from the Hyannis Port area, drove a school bus for several years after moving here but now works fulltime on the farm. He tells me that it is the prevailing wisdom that you’d need 300 head to make a living from it, and that would require a farm several times the size, and then, of course, it becomes a chore. But that number would be for a regular commercial herd. The Whitings rely on ‘value added’ to make a profit, and that value added for them is that their cattle are grass-fed and  tri-purposed.

My next, and last question: Do you love this life? Would you do it again?

The answer is instantaneous: “Absolutely!”

I take my leave, thanking them for the time they’ve taken out of their busy day to show me their impressive operation. Susan says, thoughtfully, “It’s good to take a little time, good to answer questions, because it makes us think about them. Usually we’re so busy we just keep on keepin’ on. Good to stop and think about why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

The Whitings welcome visitors but ask that you call ahead (247-6076). Spotted Dog Farm is a regular stop for the Audubon Society and popular with individual groups of birdwatchers. I can only imagine what a gold and glorious spot it will be in a few weeks.

Post Script: After this column was published in the Herald, a letter was appended to the column with some thoughts on cows and horns. This is it:

Not to worry about the horns on those little cows. Dexters are very friendly. But... if the animal wanted to hurt you.... horns would be the least of your worries! They can all kill you with very little trouble, if they wanted to. I watch my cattle & they don't use their horns to fight w/ each other. They head butt.
Dexters have an extreme amount of vasiclature in their horns. Like an elephants ears, they dissipate heat, to keep the cattle cool. I have a few cows that came to my farm w/ their horns removed. Poor things suffer terribly during heat spells.
Addenda: 10/12/10 
Sue checked out this information and got this reply from Animal Welfare Approved:

Horns for thermo-regulation
There is potential for sheep, goats, cattle and bison to use their horns as part of their thermoregulatory (temperature regulating) processes. In cattle the extreme is the Ankole Watusi , a cattle breed native to Africa which has horns that can grow up to six feet long, honeycombed with blood vessels. This makes perfect sense as the Ankole Watsui evolved to live in areas where the temperature stays very high all year round.
The way the heat exchange process works is for blood to be pumped round the ‘core’ of the horn – the bit that actually has blood vessels in it – and as this blood passes close to the outside of the horn heat can be lost to the atmosphere and cooler blood returns to the body of the animal.
However, other cattle breeds evolved to live in colder environments and there is a difference in horn morphology for cattle breeds from tropical and temperate zones. Research has shown that in temperate species the surface area of the vascularised inner core is reduced while the thickness of the outer keratin sheath is increased. This limits heat loss from the horns, as in colder climates loss of heat would be a welfare negative.
Animals have evolved to adapt to their environment but this adaptation takes many thousands of years. An animal from a hot climate cannot suddenly switch from using their horns to cool themselves to stopping that heat loss. It is worth noting that antelope originating from Africa have actually been found to have frostbite at the tips of their horns when they are kept in zoos in cold countries – the cooling effect of having horns cannot be controlled by the animal.
The Dexter is obviously a temperate cattle breed; originating from south west Ireland. Its horns will therefore not be a major part of its cooling process.
Further to the points above, thermoregulation in cattle is not solely a function of having horns. There are a number of breeds and strains of cattle that are polled – that is they naturally do not have horns. A number of popular cattle breeds such as the Angus are polled cattle and other widespread breeds such as the Hereford have polled strains. If the only way cattle could heat regulate was through their horns these animals would not look very healthy.

When temperatures exceed the thermo neutral zone for cattle – at around 85F or more – the animals regulate their temperature by evaporative cooling. Evaporative cooling is mainly effected through sweating and respiration. Heat stress is a function of time, temperature and humidity, because cattle rely on water evaporation via sweating and panting to dissipate an excess of heat they have generated metabolically or absorbed from the environment. High humidity makes evaporative cooling less efficient. Cattle will seek shade when it is available to minimize the effects of high temperatures.

There are negative points to having horns for the animals and for the stock people managing their health and welfare. Animals can damage one another with horns – a boss animal whether male or female will keep less dominant animals away from feed and water with its horns. Breeding males can fight and injure one another with their horns. In the wild this is about survival of the fittest and allowing younger animals with different genetics to take charge of the herd and breed. In a farming situation this could be the incapacity or loss of your best bull. Lastly there is a human health and safety issue with handling horned cattle. A horned steer that throws its head around when it is being handled can be a considerable danger to those trying to work with it.
There are some farmers who choose to keep horned cattle and who have the particular skills and equipment to manage them – for example feeders and squeeze chutes must be specially adapted for horned animals to prevent them being trapped or injured.  AWA would never require that such farmers moved to breeding polled cattle or that they disbud their calves to stop horns growing. However AWA does recognize that for other farmers and other breeds disbudding calves may offer the best welfare for life. AWA does of course specify the age and methods of disbudding that are acceptable to minimize the stress of the operation. AWA does not allow the mutilation of dehorning – the removal of the horn once it is fully formed and attached to the skull.
Picard K, Festa-Bianchet M, Thomas D (1996) The cost of horniness: heat loss may counter sexual selection for large horns in temperate bovids. In: Ecoscience 3(3): 280-284