Tuesday, November 15, 2011

there’s rice in them thar hills

A sheaf of rice from Breezy Meadows Orchard showed up at an autumn farmers' market

It is another glorious November day and in the afternoon the phone finally rings. It is Meadow calling me to say she is “at home” if I would care to come up.

Meadow is Meadow Squire who, with her partner, Josh Brill, is farming land up in Tinmouth on plus or minus 70 acres that Meadow’s parents, Marshall and Melody, bought back-in-the-day and on which they built a log cabin to house a burgeoning family.

I’ll be there in twenty minutes, I told Meadow, and drove up 140, then up to their farm on a rough, two-track one-mile driveway, over boulders and through water-filled ruts in the heavy hard-pan or clay – the same stuff that comprises their growing fields. Given lemons they make lemonade; given clay – which does a good job holding water – they’re making paddies. Rice paddies, that is, right here on the side of a Vermont mountain, with a glorious southwestern view, and that steep mountainside acreage to complicate things. 

They also grow veggies, and  fruit, to feed themselves and sell at the Rutland Farmers’ Market,  on what they have named Breezy Meadows Orchards. And what that means is that they have instituted wildly innovative improvements to their soil. And the soil responds, gradually.

But Josh and Meadow, beginning again, are strong and energetic and young – Meadow is 21 and Josh is 27. He thinks.

But, if he can’t quite remember how old he is, he knows a tremendous amount about permaculture and rice paddies. Permaculture is the idea of nestling under Mother Nature’s ample breast and instituting agricultural practices without her knowing, without making her miserable or angry.  I think of it as cunning non-interference.

For instance, large piles of wood chips, Josh explains to me, are laced with tubing, the stack is soaked, covered, and left to decompose. When water is run through the pipes it is warmed by the heat put off by the decomposing chips and that water will be used to warm the greenhouses in winter and spring. When I ask what the piles of litre plastic bottles are for, he explains that when filled with water in the winter, allowed to freeze, and then stacked to line the mega-insulated walk-in cooler that they built, they will provide cooling well into the summer for the produce they take to the Rutland Farmers’ Market.

The 50’x20’ plastic coated high-tunnel greenhouse? Josh and his father bent the metal poles and coated them with sheet plastic. Its shape is slightly gothic so that the snow doesn’t pile up on it, and it can be moved to cover, in thirds, 150 linear feet of garden space. Another one is in the works for next year. The garden rows in that 150 feet are rounded raised beds – logs, trimmed trees, are laid down, those are covered with brush, the brush with manure and  compost, that with that clayey soil that we spoke off. The rows are planted, then covered with straw, and as the brush and logs begin their decomposition they give off heat to the soil and attract earthworms which continue to lighten the soil. The rows that were constructed first are nicely turning that clay into a wonderful lightened humousy soil.
The traveling high tunnel covers 150' in 50' intervals. Josh and his dad put it together.

Josh Brill: Works well with Mother Nature

It’s rough up there in spite of the solitude and the beautiful day and the view. It’s steep. Every movement seems to be up or down. All the hard work that is called for makes taming the wilderness – combing and whacking and giving it a spit and a polish – seem extraneous. But there’s energy in the air. These two young people are totally at home in their kingdom.

Meadow calls the mother pig to her. She is named Regina, with a hard g. A beautiful spotted white Tamworth/Berkshire cross, she comes running out of the foresty scrub where she’s been rummaging for roots and grubs, and flops herself down to get a stomach scratch. Meadow pets her until she melts down into slothful experience (Regina, I mean), and when another pig comes running he is soon lying as blissfully under Meadow’s hands. Their ears flop down, porcine grins grace their faces. I mean, there’s Meadow with two contented hogs blissfully stretched out as if bacon at her feet. This woman has power! Meadow, I mean.
During her high school career I saw Meadow in many theatrical productions and she was marvelous.
She is just as marvelous as Daisy Mae. And Regina and Bacon are in porcine heaven.

Two beautiful brown Oberhasli goats from Consider Bardwell prance and amuse themselves – as only goats can do – in another paddock. One turned out to be pregnant when they got her. Meadow milks them and looks forward to a small herd of milking goats for yogurt, milk, and cheese. The chickens are “mutts” says Meadow, and they are the most gorgeous assortment of half-wild fowl – they’re roosting in treetops and fencetops – I’ve ever seen. They will be laying “at the end of next week,” the couple agrees. They seem to have everything planned out. Meadow and Josh, I mean.

Including the paddies. This year’s rice paddy is a rich little pocket dug into the clayey soil, about 10 or 12 feet square, the stems of the harvested rice rising in small symmetrical clumps out of a reddish mix of azolla, a water plant similar to duckweed. It’s edible, high protein, and it will not go to waste but will be fed to the animals. It suppresses weeds and forms a physical barrier between the water and mosquitoes so their eggs can’t hatch. Watercress is the third plant, also edible, of course, and can be harvested as a salad green. The waters also attract salamanders and frogs, as well as dragonflys and damselflys, all of whom eat lots of insects, and they are considering adding some fish, such as Tilapia. How about crawfish?  “What,” they wonder, “would happen if farmers planted rice paddies as a riparian buffer along rivers?” Hmmm. Lots of food for thought here.

This is the azolla, and it is that that gives the paddies their reddish hue -- their fall colors. It sets nitrogen in the water,
all the better to provide nutrients to the rice.

Rice seed is very difficult to get. They started this year with a handful of Haruka, a Northern Japanese hybrid. With the seed they produced this year, and money from a Kickstarter project, they will plant nearly an acre of paddies next summer, starting the seeds in late winter, early spring, and transplant them in the paddies in mid-May.

Hooray! There should be Vermont rice at the Farmers’ Market by next fall! Please go to their Kickstarter web page (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/840980225/growing-rice-in-vermont) and look at the cute video they made. And wish them good luck, even send them a buck or two if you can afford it. Check out their web page to get more detail on their projects at http://breezymeadowsorchards.com/
Josh and Meadow at one of the first of this summer's Farmers' Markets -- I don't think they missed a Saturday.
And look how handsome it is.

For those of you who don’t know, the Co-op’s own Peter McGann has been selling his wares at the Market. In the summer he started out with hand-chopped salsa and guacamole, which was very nice, but in the Winter Market at the Co-op he’s branched out dramatically. I bought a container of his lovely Red Cascabel Chili Salsa, as well as several potato and chorizo taquitos (small tacos). I mean! What a treat! You can’t get this stuff anywhere else. I spooned that salsa over some Hutterite beans from Yoder Farms – they are firm and flavorful – that I’d cooked up with a couple of beef shanks from Spotted Dog Farm. Sprinkled Breezy Meadow Orchard’s Cilantro over the whole thing. Yum.

And on a tragic note, our hearts and best thoughts go out to the family of Gary Miller of Castleton and the Miller Farmstand. He was killed in a tractor accident two weeks ago. He had set up his booth at the Farmers’ Market that very day from which he would have sold fresh herbs and my favorite horseradish. It was a sad day for the Market. We will all miss Gary.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

the thin season

Halloween, and the skin between the worlds is stretched as thin as a mosquito’s ... oh, I can’t say that in the paper. Take my word for it, it’s thin. So thin that you wouldn’t, for instance, want to take a paddle in a canoe on a glassine lake for fear of not knowing if the trees towering overhead were reflected in the water or the water in the trees.

Not that you’d want to take a paddle right now. It’s good, I suppose, that the leaves came off those trees before the snow came onto them. Yes, very good. And it’s good that we had the last rather subdued but nonetheless joyful Farmers’ Market out in depot park before we have the first – coming up this Saturday – of the cold season back in the medieval cave of the theater through the Co-op on Wales Street in Rutland.

Greg Cox of Boardman Hill Farm embraces Mother Nature at the last outdoor Farmers' Market of the year in Depot Park.
Mother was designed and constructed by artist, Grace Brigham, who hides under Mother's skirt.

People were complaining last Saturday that they weren’t inside out of the elements; and no doubt this coming Saturday will be so gorgeous that everyone will complain that they aren’t outside at Depot Park. Charlie Brown will be there, though, outside, jolly and plaid and sharp as a tack, selling his apples and cider and doughnuts to the faithful. He won’t come inside until the slice of daylight is so thin that even he capitulates.

There will be a few others out there, too, and I wish they would just relent and come inside the theater when the weather gets too bad. But no, they’ll probably decide to do their “own” farmers’ market instead of uniting with the other farmers in the theater. Which is a drag. It’s as if they never heard of the old saw, United We Stand; Divided We Fall, which is doubly true for farmers – stick together guys and gals::: You’re an endangered species, and we need you! Each and Every One.

It’s good the Winter Market will benefit the Rutland Area Food Co-op again this year – they’re two integral links in a healthy food chain. The Winter Market has brought immense numbers of potential customers into the Co-op each winter. Never mind that while the Farmers’ Market is cool and colorful and copacetic, and just makes you want to dance and eat at the same time, the Co-op is a little more... staid might be the word. Not quite as colorful. Of course there are wonderful people there, and I like to stop by and chat with Peter and Leah and Laura, among others. I’m sooo glad they continue to lend their hard work and personality to it  Stop by. The Co-op needs our support – our  laughter and even irreverence. One of the best ways of supporting it is to make our presence known as owners. And the way to be an owner is to be a member: That costs, last time I looked, $10 per year for an individual and $20 for a family.
Now for pumpkins, which are skeery things this time of year. You know those tiny pumpkins, about 4 inches in diameter? I’ve seeded them and par-baked them, and then poured a savory custard mixture into them, flavored with garlic and a little bit of nutmeg, and baked them until the custard was set. I believe I scattered some big orange grains of  salmon roe over them. They were outstanding!

The other night, though, Three Tomatoes stuffed baked ones with a risotto, nestling 3 large shrimp into the risotto, and scattering the whole with roasted pumpkin seeds. It was billed as an appetizer special, but it was my entrĂ©e. I didn’t know if I was in heaven or the nice dining room of Three Tomatoes. There’s that thin place again. It grew even thinner when, afterwards, we heard Jennifer Johnson Cano sing mezzo and soprano on the Paramount stage. Marvelous. I staggered out of there quite high on her wonderful voice.
Tiny Pumpkins stuffed with risotto, with shrimp and roasted pumpkin seeds was a highlight at Three Tomatoes on Friday night

I’ve written about Carol Field’s Pumpkin Risotto before. It’s one of my favorite dishes to make in this season. If you were to obtain say four of those aforementioned tiny pumpkins, some pumpkin seeds* which you then roasted in a little oil with garlic, and a pound of medium shrimp that you would simply steam in the shell before cleaning them, you could combine these elements into the cunning and delicious dish of which I spoke.
For the pumpkins: Cut the tops off as though you were making jack o’lanterns and clean out the seeds. If you have a serrated grapefruit spoon, use that to make short shrift of the cleaning. Bake the pumpkins upside down on a cookie sheet in a 375° oven  until the inside is tender, about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the risotto. Note that pumpkin is a squash, and I have more often than not used a butternut squash in place of the pumpkin in this recipe:

Riso e Zucca: Pumpkin Risotto
Creamy Pumpkin-flavored Rice
From Carol Field’s Celebrating Italy

6 servings

•    1 pound minus 2 ounces uncooked pumpkin or butternut squash, seeded
•    ¾ cup minus 1 tablespoon (5 ounces) Arborio rice
•    2 cups chicken broth
•    4 tablespoons (2 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
•    ½ cup (1 ¾ ounces) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
•    Salt and pepper to taste

Cut the pumpkin or squash in thick slices and cook in boiling salted water until a knife pierces the flesh easily. Drain, peel, and cut into small dice. Put the rice, diced squash, and cold broth in a pan. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook until the rice has absorbed the broth, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the butter and cheese, and serve immediately.

To serve, stuff the pumpkins artfully with the risotto and allow some to overlap onto the plate. Nestle 3 or 4 shrimp into the risotto and sprinkle with the roasted pumpkin seeds. Serve on fall greens, such as arugula.
If you are going to fill the little pumpkins with the custard, which needs to be baked, itself, you want to just par-bake the pumpkins for, say 15 minutes, until just beginning to be tender.
Prepare the 4 small pumpkins (prepped as above and baked 15 minutes), and fill them, while still hot, with:

Garlic Custard
•    1 ¾ cups whole milk
•    ½ cup heavy cream
•    2 or 3 cloves of garlic
•    1 teaspoon salt
•    freshly ground white pepper
•    2 whole eggs
•    2 egg yolks
•    nutmeg
•    caviar (optional)
Very carefully and slowly heat the milk and cream until bubbles begin to form around the edges of the pan.  Turn the heat off but leave the pan on the burner. Grate the garlic into the milk and let the mixture cool until warm.
Whisk the eggs and yolks together gently until well combined – the strands are broken down  but the mixture is not frothy. Whisk the scalded and cooled milk into the eggs, add the salt and pepper to taste, pour into the hot pumpkins and grind (a microplane works great for this) some nutmeg over the tops.
Bake at 300° until the custard is set, about 30 minutes. Check at 20 minutes by sliding a silver knife into the center. The mixture should be almost set, as it will continue to set when taken from the oven.
This, also could be strewn with caviar or pumpkin seeds.

*About pumpkin seeds: I can never understand how people can rave about frying up the pumpkin seeds they scoop out of the jack o’lantern.  They’re tough, no matter how much garlic and oil you fry them in. And stringy. And inedible. Unless you’re one of those people, buy the raw pumpkin seeds at the co-op and have your way with them. They’re an entirely different kind of seed.

Here’s wishing you a wonderful thin season, Dear Reader. Be very observant of the edges!