Monday, June 30, 2008

BFM summer farm tour (2008)

A few weeks ago I had the fortune of going on a summer farm tour with the Berkeley Ecology Center as part of their Farmers' Market Community Advisory Committee. We headed south to Hollister to see a few places, then over to Aromas and finally Corralitos. It was a full day, packed with home made mezcal, bovine escapee stories, a kiwi forest, free flowers and to top it all off, a scoop of delicious ice cream.

Our first stop was Catalán Farm in Hollister. María greeted us with agua fresca, mezcal, and about the warmest smile you can imagine. Her farm is a testament to the knowledge gained through a life of work in the fields. Like here, where after walking out to her corn, she goes on to explain why the chard is occupying the same space. You see, she planted her corn three times this year due to poor weather beating down the tender starts each time they tried to make a go of it. Making the best of two bad storms and a lack of water (this necessitating the renewed use of an old well) she figured, hey, if I plant my chard there too, then at least I'll be able to harvest something. María has the entire plan for the farm in her head and making adjustments like this are just part of how it goes if you are trying to squeeze in a crop despite mother nature's plans for it's demise.

Being there, I got the impression that I was walking with an encyclopedia of hard earned wisdom. Every few rows there was a different crop, often with several varieties growing together. Or as with the corn and chard combo, sometimes different crops all together. A patchwork of color, we strolled along and I imagined myself picking up the ingredients for a nice salad. Drop by her stall sometime at any of the Berkeley markets. Or read a bit more here about María Catalán, and then go buy something from her farm. You won't be disappointed in the produce or the service.

Moving lengths of metal irrigation piping over several acres is tough with a team of 4. Imagine yourself doing it alone. Like Efren. He must not know the word for sleep. He literally does nearly all of the work at the farm by himself. If there is a superhero of hard work, then he is the one man wonder of Avalos Farm. Fruits, veggies, rooty things........he is the man. I've always wondered why his stuff is so good and amongst the cheapest at the market, but I guess when you never sleep, you learn a lot about growing stuff because you never miss a thing.

Looking out at his land, at first it was hard to tell what was what. I'd see some crazy tall weeds and think it was a fallow area, only to realize that I was also looking at artichokes, tomatillos, carrots, beets and a few potatoes. The strawberries were clearly defined, or about as clear as anything was and this was what enchanted me the most about his farm. Efren grows a lot of weeds at his farm. I'm sure they are impossible to get to as a one person operation. But, they act as cover crop and as long as the rest ain't suffering, why bother. I'm sure he stays on top of invasive stuff, but I got to thinking and when you add them to the biomass of produce he brings to market, it helped me give a new definition to productivity of a single farmer.

A very practical man, anything growing will at least feed the few cows he has. He keeps them in certain areas to avoid eating his valuable produce. This is not how they started out though. Efren didn't intend to own a few cows and start ranching. You see, his neighbors cows got out through the fence and when Efren started work one morning, the entire herd was on his farm. Chowing down on some tasty stuff we were told. When it happened again, a deal was worked out and few never went back.

After Efren's place, we ventured over to San Juan Bautista and had some artichoke enchiladas in historic downtown. I wandered over to the Mission to look at the chapel where my great, great, great grandfather was baptized back in the 1830's when this was Mexico. It was easy to imagine the main street in town not having changed a whole lot since. Cars now, sure. But there are also still places you could tie up your horse and the building across from where we ate was dated 1799. This was one of the hearts of farming and cattle back in the beginning of professional agriculture in California, so it seemed very fitting for a rest stop while out touring modern day farms.

Have you ever seen a kiwi forest? I never had either and in full summer leaf with tiny little fruits on it was a veritable thicket of trees. Sure the trees are laid out in neat rows on a steep hillside, but with how kiwi climb and wind around stuff and get all contorted in the process, the thought "this is what they call a riot of growth" is what came to mind. Robin explained to us that kiwi need pollination, so there are 1 male for every ten females on the property. The flower and growth patterns set them apart visually until the fruit is bearing, but with the tangle of green and the beauty of the farm, I never quite got it straight.

One thing I did learn about kiwi however was that here watercress grows at the bases of their mature 30 year old stock. Planting crops that work well together is one reason Four Sisters Farm has been around for 30+ years. Based on their following at the markets, I'd say they've learned a thing or two. Stuff is packed into their hillside. What will be cut flowers were in rows between everything. This farm is a happy, hyper-productive place. It's easy to imagine four little girls growing up here. All grown up and gone from the nest these days, the nurturing is now full time in the garden.

Blue Heron Farm used to be on another property years back where their namesake would nest in the trees. Apparently some still occasionally do even though the property is different. Avian nesting continuity aside, the passion in the place is readily apparent. Order is the first thing that came to mind when we arrived and saw crops. It wasn't just weed abatement that gave the sense, it was the close planting and uniformity of individual species that impressed. Dennis talked of bio-intensive land use, cover crops, and his fortune of being so proximal to the coast. This means that much of what is harvested can be done early in the morning when it is nice and cool and doesn't need to go in the fridge to be shipped off the farm. That means sometimes much of what comes to market hasn't even seen anything much below 50.

Their small hoop houses used for starting seeds were just packed with little gems. Being cooler than most other farms, the start the plants get is a boon to production and allows the farm to keep rotating crops frequently, leaving very little down time except for the winter. Dennis had a tractor mounted planting frame, designed by experience and many splinters that allows them to efficiently get the starts into the earth. Well planned, orderly and efficient, it's no wonder places like Chez Panisse count on getting some of their produce here.

At the end of a long day, we were sent home with a fresh bouquet of flowers. It was nice to literally smell the farm all the way home. We pulled out back onto pavement and drove on through Santa Cruz, making sure to stop at Marianne's to sample one or two or five of the 70+ flavors made in right in town.

Damn, I sure love field trips!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

local junk food: a deep fried relapse

So what is this now, like, the third deep fried post? I don't even want to do a cholesterol test right now, but let's just say I've started running again. Anyway, as the title suggests, I've suffered a relapse and gone and made corn dogs. And jalapeño poppers. And artichoke hearts. Uhh, and, fried chicken. But that was another night and I intentionally didn't take any pictures, so there was no evidence. Well that and I didn't want to alert Biggles to my doings, which I guess I just blew by saying that. (Fried chicken is in your future buddy!) Anyway, it was a dream come true........

As I was cutting the skewers for the hot dogs, I was imagining a way to cook the dogs in a vertical position and hold them in place. With a plan hatched, I whacked the dogs into smaller two-bite portions. I gave the peppers a seeding, blanching and buttermilk bath before their stuffing and first coat of batter. Then they spent some time in the fridge getting nice and cold. I used buttermilk and eggs in the half cornmeal half whole wheat batter. No beer this time. Well, more like no beer for the batter.

I used an old MacGyver technique involving some sticks and a piece of gum. Had I an underwire bra at my disposal it would have been more, well, stable, but my device did the trick. It allowed me to suspend the dogs somewhat upright during the frying. They tended to float off to one side so I would correct this a bit with my hands during the cooking to keep them fully submerged. The poppers I simply tossed in and gave a flip after a minute. Being cold to start out, just about the time the cheese gets melty and begins squirting out, they're done.

The picture is fuzzy because it's an action shot taken while moving at high speed towards the table. This was a sample plate, including corn dogs and poppers. They were simply divine. After I ate around 13 or 14 dogs and 3 poppers (on my own) there was still a touch of batter left. So I tossed in a few artichoke hearts we had in the fridge. These cooked in a matter of about a minute and went down the throat even faster. As you can see, they didn't even make it onto the plate.

So, at this point, I'm not doing anymore lying. I love my deep fryer and you're just gonna have to pry it from my burnt-from-hot-oil-spattered paws if you want to use it!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

oaktown hip hops

You heard the 411 on the hop crisis?
Well, whether you have or not, for us malt liquor lovers, it's like, damn! Fo' shoe-a.
Luckily, my abode here in Oaktown be in a middle latitude on dis' orb and gots a hella mild climate. Means you can grow'em yo'self my peeps.

So somehow seeing into the future and anticipating the shortage of some hops for craft brewers, about this time last year, I bought a few hop rhizomes and planted them out front. Really, I bought them down at the Oak Barrel because they had some, I love growing things, and a town named Hopland is under two hours away so I figured they'd do at least alright. Anyway, they were planted in half barrels containing crappy soil that needed much amending and aerating. No worries. I read they don't do much their first year. Sure nuff, they went up about four feet reeeel slowly and then all the greenery died about November during our first almost frost.

This year, I looked at our garden space more closely and hatched a plan for hop production. I transplanted them into a patch that I used an acidic conditioner on (sulfur bits). Apparently, the new environs and second year of growth have coincided nicely, for we now have a few plants climbing. Getting them to grow is one challenge. Directing their growth is another. So, to push the learning even further, I put strings I tied to tomato cages at ground level and to a few rusty screws near our roofline (placed so fortuitously by a former tenant) for the Northern Brewer to climb, while the Cascade are being directed to go out horizontal above the cold frame and toward the street.

Looking out the bathroom window now involves a leafy view, particularly downward. The bines grow clockwise around the strings and haul themselves up rather nicely. And if you like watching things grow, these are fun. On that hottest day a few weeks back here in the bay area, one of them seemed to grow about eight inches. I couldn't believe my eyes, but it corresponded with it coming up over the gutter and finally onto the roof so it was easy to see its progress over the course of the day. It was amazing.
I love plants.

On closer inspection a few days later, I noticed that what I thought might be the developing cones, must indeed be. From a distance, it looked like the plants had blurry spots on them. I hauled myself up for a closer look and there they were in open flowering mode, fuzzy and hoppy. I went back inside and did a little happy dance feeling totally stoked at the prospect of a future hop harvest. I thought to myself sheee-iiiit damn! DIY rules! (followed by whispering to myself) Just don't fuck it up now.........

The little ladies in the neighborhood have been diggin' on the hops too. I guess it it still technically spring for a few more days and they might as well make the best of it. I welcome any thing that pleases them for there have been no pests of any kind so far. By the looks of these critters, I can probably count on aphids at least being out of the picture. Or can I? A horrid thought crossed my mind: we had some enormous garden pests last year, chiefly in the form of the North American bastard corn swiper. They better not return and like hops too!

Well, I'm off to go make a few bamboo stake booby traps and maybe a slingshot or two. So, remember, whatever you may consider doing in my yard, make sure you have explicit permission!

Monday, June 09, 2008

hell (deep fried heaven part 2)

Please Lord, grant me the strength to walk away from my deep fryer.

If I don't succeed in this endeavor please at least give me the strength to perhaps gift it to someone or put it out on a very lengthy visit to another kitchen.

Please Lord, there isn't much time.

Like, seriously, my brain is infected with the greasey goo. As the oil's carbon chain profile of the fats alter with each use, a powerful mind numbing chemical is released. It must be, I can feel the change. One that destroys your ability to reason.
You briefly ponder the question: can't I just fry everything? And the immediate response is OF COURSE!
That right there is trouble.

Really, I have to step away from the fryer. This time for sure. I had discovered beer batter and once that ball starts rolling there's no stopping it. With home brew fermenting and being enjoyed, and multiple flours about the place it is easy to get into gut busting, artery plugging, button popping, acne inducing, kitchens gonna be smelly for three days kind of trouble. Also, the children might start expecting all of their veggies to be fried.
And like, damn, that sure sucks.

Just when I thought I could step away on my own, I reasoned that tacos would be the appropriate fishy finish for the oil and then I could quit because I'd have to. Too smelly. I also justified the cholesterol intake by using my new 3-2-1 system of keeping in shape. It goes something like 3 people powered by 2 legs on 1 wheeled vehicle. I figured if I could haul the kids across town to the Thursday BFM market by pedal power for the fish, then I could eat about anything that night.

However this ain't just anything. It's eclectic, but delish, deep fried fish. Beer battered black rock fish topped with spicey kraut, goat cheddar and a few pickled jalapeños on a corn tortilla.
Deep fried bliss.
But hell.
Straight up addictive.

Please...........someone. Have mercy on my plugged artery soul.
Come take my deep fryer over to your house.

If you want more posts...........please save me!