There’s a bittersweetness to the start of summer with the recognition that the daylight hours will begin to dwindle, but it’s hard to get hung up on that when the days are hot and sunny and the crops are so bountiful. The scarcity of the beginning months of spring is now long-forgotten, replaced with the abundant, colorful, 3-dimensional fruits of summer. We’re already well into our harvesting of greens, peas, strawberries, turnips, radishes and garlic scapes (with 28 jars of pickled scapes to show for it!) Zucchinis and beets have made recent and exciting new appearances. And beans, new potatoes, cherry tomatoes and garlic wait in the wings, promising hours of harvest to be followed by meals of potato salads, gazpacho and grilled veggies. My body and mind are tired and satisfied, both surer than ever that this is the work that I’m meant to do, my love in action. As for my spirit, it’s feeling invigorated, and felt particularly so when a group of my fellow farmers and I ran around the farm naked on the night of the solstice: a warm rain falling, fireflies flashbulbing all over, and a beautiful fit of lightening in the sky. So many of the things I love about Michigan coalescing in one space and time. So here’s to Summer! But not without a quick homage to the season that got us here, the damp and dutiful Spring:
love from michigan,
That’s what I keep hearing, though I am yet to find a single morel in my many forays into the oak forest near the farm. So onto some other M’s this month has offered thus far:
M is for MARKET: I worked my first farmers market as a Tantre Farm employee on Saturday, a beautiful bustling 7 hours of talking to people about food, sharing recipes, making trades with other vendors, hitting the wall, getting my second (and third) wind and doing it all over again. Our stand was filled with produce: rhubarb, the first asparagus of the season, shiitake mushrooms, stinging nettles, mache (“corn salad”), spinach, leeks, green garlic, and herbs. It was fun and exhausting, and I can’t wait to go back.
M is for MEAD: I’ve started 3 one-gallon batches of mead or honey wine (Ethiopian “t’ej”). It’s super easy to make (honey + water + natural yeasts from the air), and only mildly more difficult to refine (by creating a more controlled yeast environment or allowing the mead to age in bottles). I’m trying 3 different types: a plain one to see how I like the flavor of the honey, one made with lemony herbs (lemon balm, lemon thyme and lemon grass), and a nettle mead.
which brings me to
M is for MEDICINAL: I wasn’t sure what other M to use for nettles (Urtica dioica), but, holy cow, May has been all about this powerful plant! I typically go out at least twice a week with a paper bag and some scissors and snip off the tender tops of the nettles growing here there and everywhere on the farm. If you’re gentle enough with the plant, you can avoid getting stung by their spiny stems. If not, well, you’ve just greatly increased the circulation to whatever part of your body you touched them with. A great source of iron, nettles are used for everything from pain relief to treating arthritic conditions. They do bring about increased circulation and women have been known to use them to encourage menstruation and uterine toning. But when I labeled the morning’s batch of nettle tea (I recently learned that to achieve the most benefit from most medicinal herbs, it’s important to steep them from 3 to 8 hours) “Uterine Toning Elixir,” the men on the farm were feeling a little left out. So in considering the increased circulatory effects the herb brings about, “Nettle Tea” has since been renamed everything from “Orgasm Juice” (OJ) to “Coitus Cordial”. Drink with caution, ok? You’ve been warned. Ah, farm humor! As far as cooking with nettles goes, they lend themselves to everything from soups to stir fries to pestos (and I think they taste like the color green).
M is for MAMA: This will come as no surprise to those of you who have met her, but my mom is the cat’s meow. And after years of celebrating Mother’s Day from afar, I’m so happy that we got to spend the day together this year. It began with a feast of a homemade brunch that we shared with my brother Chris and his partner Marci: a shiitake green garlic nettle frittata, home fries, yogurt & pumpkin granola, a fruit salad and mimosas. Later in the day, my mom and I spent some time in her veggie garden getting her pea trellis set up as the eager 4″ pea plants looked on. And our collective wheels are turning on an exciting project that I offered to help my mom on- Operation Reclaim the Front Yard: killing off the lawn with a cardboard sheet mulch and planting it up with native trees, shrubs, groundcovers, edible perennials, wildflowers, the works!
M is for MICHIGAN: I’ve been back in the state almost 2 months now, a sentence that just reads wrong no matter how many times I assure myself that it’s true. In most ways it has flown by, though there are times when I find myself really homesick for the west coast and the people I love out there. I knew this divide would be a tricky one, though I feel so blessed for the letters the e-mails the phone calls that keep me connected to my Washington home. As for the MItten, most days it feels like an old t-shirt that has been worn in for years. I love the opportunity to look at an old and familiar place with a new lens, and I’m inspired by my conversations and interactions I’ve had with people who are truly invested in making their home better.
May, you’re just getting started but you’ve been good to me so far – the later part of this month should bring with it warmer night-time temperatures, lots of transplanting and seeding of warmth-loving crops on the farm as the threat of frost starts to fade, and hopefully – finally – a handful or two of morels.
love from Michigan,
Alright Michigan, I get it. I was feeling a little too excited about my first sunburn of the season last week. That muggy 80 degree day last Sunday was over the top, it’s true. We were getting ahead of ourselves, looking past Spring right towards Summer, and it’s only natural you’d want to put us in our places. With 4 inches of snow… in mid-April. As that picture up above shows though, it melted as quickly as it fell – a thick white blanket turning to muddy sludge in no time.
So what’s a farmer to do (besides gnash her teeth a little bit) when the snow makes fields untillable, spinach unharvestable, and weeds unhoeable? Well the good thing (and sometimes the bad thing) about being on a farm is there is always work to do: spring cleaning, building the trusses that will support our greenhouses, weeding hoophouses (and enjoying the diversity the weeds – lambs quarters and mustards – will offer our spinach salads), turning frozen tomatoes and berries into canned sauce and jam, sharpening tools, making cheese and yogurt, transplanting peppers and tomatoes into larger pots and flats, willing those seeds that have already found their homes in the soil to bide their time, and hoping that Spring – when it decides to show itself – will be generous.
After we traded in the idea of Mardis Gras in New Orleans for Mardis Gras in Michigan (this gave me the opportunity to introduce Neil to his first Fat Tuesday paczki), Neil and I had Cajun cooking on the brain. It didn’t take long for us to fill the kitchen with the incredible smells of a delicious sausage gumbo, a thick Cajun stew. A perfect meal for a future pig farmer and a lady with ambiguous dietary self-restrictions.
Holy cow, was it good! Before I get to the recipe, here are a couple of things we learned as we looked for the perfect recipe:
1. Bell pepper, onion and celery are sometimes called the “holy trinity” of Cajun cooking – a flavor blend common in the cuisine – and they definitely add to the depth and flavor of the gumbo.
2. Filé powder, a seasoning made from ground sassafras leaves, is often used to thicken and flavor gumbos. Often it’s added just before eating. We weren’t able to find it, so if you’ve ever tried it, I’d love to know what it’s like.
3. A good roux (pronounced “roo”) is CRUCIAL
What’s a roux, you ask? Basically, it’s a cooked mixture of flour and fat. But oh, it’s so much more than that! It adds thickness, depth and flavor (not to mention a cooking challenge!) to an average pot of soup.
INGREDIENTS (serves 4 hungry people)
2 links sausage (we tried Andouille and Keilbasa courtesy of Zingerman’s Deli and the Copernicus European Delicatessen)
1/3C oil or butter
1/2 C flour (whole wheat pastry or white)
1 large onion, finely cut into large half-moons
3 cloves garlic
2 green bell peppers, roughly chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 Tbs mixture of thyme, paprika, cayenne, bay leaves, oregano (or a handy Cajun spices blend)
3 quarts stock, warm
1/3 C chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste
6C cooked brown rice
the how to
- Cut the sausages into 1/2″ slices and cook over medium-high heat until browned in your soup pot. No oil necessary – they should release plenty of their own. Pour them in a bowl and set aside for now.
- Using the grease released by the sausage (and the additional oil or butter, as necessary), pour in the flour and begin to make your roux. Stir continuously – it can quickly burn. The flour should get to a thick pasty consistency – not too wet, not too dry; add more oil if it’s drying out – and should look somewhere between a dark copper and rich chocolatey color. This depends on your patience and preferences, but can take anywhere between 7 and 20 minutes of stirring (it’s worth it, I promise!)
- Once your roux has darkened, add the onion, garlic, celery, bell pepper and spices and cook until the vegetables have softened and the onions are translucent.
- Add the stock and bring the liquid to a boil. Then turn the stove down to low and let simmer for half an hour.
- Add the cooked sausage and continue to cook for half an hour+ until the soup has reached the consistency you’d like and the flavors have melded.
- Add salt and pepper to taste, and throw in the chopped parsley just before serving.
- Serve over rice, topped with Tobasco sauce and accompanied by a spicy glass of wine.
- Savor the flavors. Happy Belated Mardis Gras!
In our recipe searchings, Neil and I came across a cookbook (Justin Wilson’s Homegrown Louisiana Cookin’) written with a crystal clear -and hilarious- voice: