food, farming, friends and family: a meditation on chosen simplicity and (in)voluntary complications – life.

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Food and Community at Selma Cafe

For the past 5+ years I’ve lived in a bubble.  A bubble filled with people who love food, from its beginning as tiny seeds tucked into soil to the many incarnations it can take in the kitchen, and love too the community that springs up around a dining room table.  In moving to Michigan, I wasn’t sure if I would find that bubble popped or just shifted.  While the familiar faces around the table, some of the ingredients in the dishes, and, who knows, maybe the levels of recovery from butter-phobia may be a bit different, I am so happy to find a thriving food community in Southeast Michigan.  And last Friday (at the advice of both my mom and my friend Jill), Neil and I sat down to eat at what has quickly become a hub of the local food/community movement in Ann Arbor: the Selma Cafe

Their blog explains it better than I can, but the basic idea as I understand it is that Jeff and Lisa, the visionaries of Selma, started the cafe in their home a couple of years ago as a place where people could come and share food, conversation, ideas and inspiration for a few hours on Friday mornings.  The food would be local and prepared in-house and the proceeds would go towards funding the construction of hoop houses on farms in the area.  With a mission of creating a community space and evolving a community and food consciousness, the Selma Cafe is clearly off and running:  an article I recently read said that upwards of 150 people eat breakfast at Selma every Friday.

Neil and I walked in to find the place brimming with people, most of them sitting around the huge communal table in what must have previously been Jeff and Lisa’s living room.  The kitchen was buzzing with cooks, super friendly volunteer staff, a live folk band and more dining nooks.  We filled our tummies with biscuits and gravy, a delicious fried egg, local hoophouse greens, a scone from a local bakery, and Michigan cider.  In the process, we chatted with our neighbors, all of us outfitted with name tags we’d later stick to the wall in the entrance.   A beautiful way to spend a Friday morning and a comforting continuation of my bubble.

I’m so glad to know places like this exist here, and will definitely be a return visitor.  If you’re in the area, check Selma out.

Well if you’re really in the area, there’s no reason not to check these places out too:

Jolly Pumpkin Brewery

Arbor Brewing Company

The Grange

Zingerman’s Deli

People’s Food Coop

The Brinery

Retirement Continued: Trying on the Mitten

There’s nothing like a road trip to remind you what a vast country the United States truly is (a vast country that seems to be 99.9% covered in snow in early March).  After moving out of our Bellingham abode (complete with a really sweet send-off from friends and neighbors) and spending a few days at Cloudview to get Neil a bit more moved in, he and I drove from Royal City, Washington to Chelsea Michigan – 2,145 miles, give or take – and we did it in just 3 days!

When it looked like some heavy winter weather might be gaining on us and when some frigid night-time temps forced us to get a hotel in Minnesota (the night before we spent a pretty comfortable night on a platform Neil built for the bed of my truck), we decided CHELSEA OR BUST!

Even though it was a (relatively) quick drive, we still made sure to take in some of the highlights of the middle stretch of the US: things like flocks of wild turkeys, beautiful farmland, hot drinks at a sweet cafe in Sundance Wyoming (where the barista, after seeing my license plate, told me that she grew up in Coupeville Washington of all places!) and a CHEESE shop in Wisconsin (of course) that supplied us with the cheese that would fuel the last bit of our drive and the beer that would reward us once we arrived at my mom’s door.  All of it local and delicious!

The road trip had a beautiful symmetry to it; 4 and a half years ago, Neil and I made the trip across the country after our year at EarthCorps.  Unlike his last visit (a time when I was pretty anxious about an upcoming 3 months in Japan), I was determined to be a better host and give Neil a good look at what my little slice of the MItten has to offer.  A week of long walks, local brewpubs, Indian restaurants, museums, cooking, parks, tours of both Tantre Farm and the Jiffy Mix factory (a mom and pop business started in my hometown) and lots of time spent with my nutty family brought to a close the month-and-a-half long celebration that has been our shared retirement.  And following what was certainly the hardest airport send-off of my life, we’re starting in on some pretty exciting seasons this year.  Of course none of it is that easy or seamless (otherwise my brain wouldn’t be in the total whirlwind it’s in right now), but it is truly a new adventure.

love from Michigan,

e

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Potato Cheese Pierogi

In preparation for our moves (AKA the end of retirement), Neil and I have made lists of restaurants in Bellingham we want to try out, shows in town we want to see, etc.  Another list includes meals we want to make and enjoy together.  Sharing space  atop that list with the likes of blueberry coffee cake and mushroom risotto are pierogi, delicious Polish dumplings. This recipe is slightly adapted from my friend Aldona, takes about 1.5 to 2 hours from start to finish and is a perfect comfort food for these cold clear nights.

 

POTATO CHEESE PIEROGI

INGREDIENTS (serves 4)

Dough

2Cups white flour (whole wheat pastry flour works too, but won’t be as soft or easy to work with)

1 large egg

3/4 Cup hot water

1 Tbs olive oil

1 tsp salt

Fried Onion Deliciousness

1/2 stick of butter

1 large onion, chopped pretty fine

Filling

3 large potatoes

1 Cup cottage/farmer cheese

salt and pepper to taste

one large scoop of Fried Onion Deliciousness

Toppings

soy sauce

sour cream

Fried Onion Deliciousness

hot sauce

scallions

curry, chopped herbs, yogurt – you name it! get creative!

THE HOW TO

  1. Cut potatoes into small chunks and boil until soft and mashable.
  2. While the potatoes are cooking, pour flour into a large bowl.  Make a big well in the flour and crack the egg into it.  Add the salt, olive oil, and about half of the hot water.
  3. Knead the dough together, adding the rest of the water as needed until you have what feels like a soft pie dough – not too dry, but not sticky either. Let the dough rest, covered so it doesn’t dry out, for 20 minutes or so as you prepare the fried onion deliciousness and pierogi filling.
  4. Put the half stick of butter in a cast iron skillet, and, once it is melting and starting to sizzle, add the chopped onion.  Fry until the onions are translucent and smelling irresistibly delicious.
  5. Drain the boiled potatoes and mash with a fork.  Add the cheese (we got Polish farmers cheese from the European import store, but most any cheese  – farmers, cottage, cheddar – will do) and a big scoop of the fried onions.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  *For one batch of pierogi, we added curry powder and peas to this mixture.
  6. Roll out the dough on a floured cutting board.  It should be pretty darn thin – a millimeter? – thick enough that it won’t tear when you add the filling, thin enough that it won’t taste gummy once boiled.
  7. Using a cup, cut out circles of dough 3 inches in diameter or so.
  8. Put a Tablespoon or 2 of filling on each circle of dough (it takes much less filling than you might think!) and crimp the edges together to form a pocket, a mini-calzone.  Make sure your edges are sealed or the dumplings will spill open when boiling.
  9. As you’re finishing with filling the pierogi, heat up a large pot of water to boiling.  Dunk about 10 – 12 pierogi in at once.  They’ve finished cooking about 30 seconds after they float to the top (2 minutes or so altogether). 
  10. Top with the left-over fried onions, soy sauce, sour cream, hot sauce and anything else you’re inclined to try.
  11. Enjoy hot, with a glass of wine and a winter companion. Marvel at the countless ways cultures have managed to accessorize dough and make it taste delicious.

Retirement: Lessons Learned From Water

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In what I’ve been calling my temporary retirement (Bellingham is, after all, the other place young people go to retire), I’ve been trying to soak in all of the things I love so dearly about the Pacific Northwest.  When I look back at the last month, I realize just how literal the soaking was; all of my adventures about the area have taken me to water.  It began with my trip to Oregon with Neil (my partner in retirement – in all things, really), where we spent a couple of days with his family walking around the Fernhill Wetlands watching all kinds of birds fly from pond to tree to pond again.  A hike on the outskirts of Portland with Al to see the mighty Columbia meander its way through the Gorge.  Soaking in the soothing sulphur springs with Virginia at Doe Bay on Orcas Island.  A beautiful weekend with my favorite Seattle-ites in a cabin in La Push on the coast of the Olympic Peninsula, where the waves roared in a winter storm and a forest’s worth of driftwood scattered the beach.  And just a few days ago, Neil and I took the train up to Vancouver, BC and spent an afternoon at the aquarium there, fully cementing my love for sea otters and fascination with all things that make their homes in the water.

 

I, myself, do not feel particularly at home or at ease in the water.  Surfing seems like a death sentence and I envy those that can make swimming seem less like a struggle and more like cohesion.  I enjoy being near water, but the interactions I have with the element usually feel out of my control, based more on the whim and power of the water itself than any influence I might have.  Not a phobia, but definitely a healthy dose of (at times nervous) respect.  Awe.

 

This past month has reminded me, though, of the constant presence water has in this area (further reinforced by the mini-hail storm happening just outside my window) and in my life.  As much as it exists in our oceans, rivers and alpine lakes, it has a place in our subconscious too.  And the more time I spend with it, the more I become aware of the lessons water has to teach us.

 

It combines and balances grace and power – patience and urgency – in the most mesmerizing way.

It maintains a healthy relationship with the moon.

It’s rarely linear, preferring a zig-zaggy meandering to a straight shot.

It cycles through its existence, the product of countless sources and environmental influences – shifting shapes, but omnipresent.

 

My upcoming travels (my study abroad, as my sister calls it) are taking me to the midwest – a land of lakes whose precipitation of choice (or non-choice, rather) at the moment is a heavy blanket of snow.  More lessons to learn – insulation and patience, perhaps?  Time will tell.  For now, some words from a man who describes my current home like no one else can:

 

Puget Sound may be the most rained-on body of water on earth.  Cold, deep, steep-shored, home to salmon and lipstick-orange starfish, the Sound lies between the Cascades and the Olympics.  The Skagit Valley lies between the Cascades and the Sound–sixty miles north of Seattle, an equal distance south of Canada.  TheSkagit River, which formed the valley, begins up in British Columbia, leaps and splashes southwestward through the high Cascade wilderness, absorbing glaciers and sipping alpine lakes, running two hundred miles in total before all fish-green, driftwood cluttered and silty, it spreads its double mouth like suckers against the upper body of Puget Sound.  Toward the Sound end of the valley, the fields are rich with river silt, the soil ranging from black velvet to a blond sandy loam.  Although the area receives little unnfiltered sunligh, peas and strawberriesgrow lustily in Skagit fields, and more than half the world’s supply of beet seed and cabbage seed is harvested here.  Like Holland, which it in some ways resembles, it supports a thriving bulb industry: in spring its lowland acres vibrate with tulips, iris and daffodils; no bashful hues.  At any season, it is a dry duck’s dream.  The forks of the river are connected by a network of sloughts, bedded with ancient mud nad lined with cattail, tules, eelgrass and sedge.  The fields, though diked, are often flooded; there are puddles by the hundreds and the roadside ditches could be successfully navigated by midget submarines.  

It is a landscape in a minor key.  A sketchy panorama where objects, both organic and inorganice, lack well-defined edges and tend to melt together in a silver-green blur.  Great islands of craggy rock arch abruptly up out of the flats, and at sunrise and moonrise these outcroppings are frequently tangled in mist.  Eagles nest on the island crowns and blue herons flap through the veils from slough to slough.  It is a poetic setting, one which suggests inner meanings and invisible connections.

Tom Robbins
Another Roadside Attraction


Oh (Dutch) Baby!

Somewhere in the intersection of pancakes and custards resides the Dutch Baby.  With a gallon of frozen blueberries taking up space in our neighbor’s freezer (too daunting for our mini-fridge), I felt like taking on this new breakfast item.  Be forewarned: if you bite into a dutch baby pancake expecting a pancake, you’ll be grossed out by the smooth creamy inner texture; if you expect a custard, it won’t taste quite right either.  The trick is to appreciate the fusion of the two (the fact that it’s laden with blueberries and smothered in maple syrup won’t hurt either!).

Without further ado, the Dutch Baby Pancake :

BLUEBERRY DUTCH BABY PANCAKE

(recipe from Nourishing Traditions)

INGREDIENTS

1Cup whole wheat flour

1 Cup yogurt, kefir or buttermilk (for those with dairy allergies, 1 Cup of water mixed with 2 Tablespoons of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar is a fine substitution)

1 Cup water

4 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 tsp salt

2-4 Tbsp butter

1/2 Cup blueberries (fresh or frozen – if frozen, thaw a bit beforehand)

nutmeg, powdered sugar (optional toppings)

THE HOW TO

  1. The night before you’re planning to make the cakes, mix together the flour and yogurt/kefir/buttermilk/water+     This step will ultimately make the pancakes more digestible (and you can start it even earlier if you like), but, honestly, if you’re time-pressed or a very capable digester on all your own, feel free to skip it.
  2. The next morning….
  3. Preheat the oven to 400°
  4. Crack the eggs into a food processor and mix for several minutes.  This makes the eggs light and airy and creates that custardy yumminess.  Add the flour mixture, the additional water, salt and vanilla and process for another minute.
  5. Put 1-2 Tablespoons of butter in a cast iron skillet and put in the heated oven until the butter is melted and starting to sizzle.
  6. Pour half of the batter (1.5 – 2 Cups) into the hot skillet and throw in a handful (1/4 Cup or so) of blueberries.
  7. Bake in the oven, turning the heat down to 350° as you put the skillet in, until the pancake is puffed* and browned (15-20 minutes).  Dust with nutmeg and powdered sugar.  Repeat for the second pancake.
  8. Enjoy with maple syrup, honey, jam, yogurt, all the usual pancake toppings.

* Tips on getting your pancake to puff up (AKA what I wish I had known beforehand):  Try not to peek in on its progress if you can help it.  The consistent heat really helps – if 350° isn’t puffing it up enough, try 400°.   Or try a smaller skillet and make several smaller cakes.

Polish Salad

Don’t get me wrong; I’ll never say ‘no’ to the rich complex flavors of a curry, the way dozens of spices can meld just right and dance on the tastebuds.  And while I couldn’t necessarily tell you what exactly turmeric tastes like, I know that I love it blended with countless other spices in Channa Masala or a pot of Dal.  But I also love a recipe that lets its main players speak for themselves, one that can stand on its own – with maybe just a little help from salt and pepper.  That’s where this recipe for Polish salad comes in.  Some call it Russian salad, and I’m sure it goes by all kinds of names, but it came to me straight from a Polish woman (my friend Aldona’s mom), so I’ll take her word for it.

There’s plenty of room to play around in this recipe.  Potatoes, carrots and celeriac form the base – and I’d say each one is pretty crucial, though the proportions are up to you.  As for the bells and whistles, I added onions, peas, pickles, and hard-boiled eggs.  Other ideas include parsnips, a tart apple, scallions or diced celery.  A mayonaise/yogurt combination binds the salad together with salt and pepper adding a little kick.  Warning: this salad is addictive – the kind of dish that perfectly straddles the heartiness of winter and the sweetness of spring.

Ok, without further ado:

POLISH SALAD

 

INGREDIENTS (serves 6+)

2 Celery Roots (Celeriac), peeled and cut into large chunks

6 medium Potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks

4 Carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks

1 Cup  Peas

1/2 small Onion, diced

2 Eggs, hard-boiled and chopped

2 Dill Pickles, chopped

1/2 Cup Yogurt + Mayonaise

salt and pepper, to taste

 

THE HOW TO

  1. Boil the celeriac, potatoes and carrots until tender (not mushy).  Remove from water (which would make a perfect stock for soup) and, once cool, chop into small cubes.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the cubed veggies with the peas, onions, hard-boiled eggs, and the pickles.
  3. Mix the yogurt and mayonaise together (I used probably 4 or 5 tablespoons of mayo and let yogurt fill the rest of the 1/2 Cup – if you want a creamier salad, add more) and pour over the veggie mixture in the bowl.
  4. Add salt and pepper to taste.  Lemon juice, celery seed, mustard, or dill would also be delicious, but I think you’ll find the veggies – and the mayo, of course – speak for themselves.
  5. Enjoy!

On Becoming a Townie – and a Farmer

In a couple of months, I’m conducting an experiment.  I’m hopping into my truck and, leaving a 5 year relationship with my friends, partner and the state of Washington behind me (literally, not figuratively), I’m moving back near my home town of Chelsea, Michigan to work at a farm.  While my apprehension about the move comes far more from what and who I’m leaving behind than what and who I’m heading towards, I have to admit that I’m a little nervous about being back in Michigan – particularly so close to where I grew up.

For one thing, I don’t really know many people in the area anymore; the fact is that most people I went to highschool and college with left the immediate area, if not the state.    I certainly did.  And despite legislative efforts to encourage college graduates to stay around, Michigan is losing people right and left.  There’s certainly an economic element to this exodus; Michigan has long held the notorious honor of being at the top of state unemployment rates.  But that wasn’t as much of an issue 5+ years ago when I left the state – and the issue of young people leaving is not isolated to Michigan.  While I can’t completely channel my 20 year old mind at the time I moved west, I’m sure it was thinking something along the lines of  ‘I’ve gotta get out of here – I’ve gotta see something new’   And so I went – and in doing that, I put about 2000 miles of distance between myself and my old home – and most importantly, my family.  This is a gap we’ve narrowed with phone calls, e-mails and train rides, but one that has been nagging me since I moved to Washington.

Ok, so this isn’t meant to be as much a “dear diary” entry as a chance to take a look at  1) why so many young people, myself included, choose to leave their home towns/states  (is it about better opportunities, a change of scenery, a shift in perspective, the stigma of being someone who never left home?)  2)  is there any way to reverse the trend (if it seems worth reversing)?  is it a matter of waiting for an economic upheaval – or a grassroots return home to create something new ourselves?  which came first – the return of young people or the return of jobs, entertainment, opportunities that appeal to them?   And  3)  when- if at all – is the right time to return home?  Though we’re not a culture that sees multiple generations living under one roof much anymore, as we watch our parents age from a distance while beginning to start families ourselves, this question seems more and more relevant.

As for me, my mom turns 60 this year, and my siblings, still in the area now, could likely be on the move soon.  The time felt ripe for a move home (one that I’m looking at initially as lasting for the farming season, but it will be as temporary or as permanent as I make it).  I’ve been farming in Washington now too for a few years now, and I’m excited to see what the organic farming movement looks like in Michigan.  Admittedly, moving back to southeast Michigan at a time that just so happens to coincide with my 10 year high school reunion in order to make about 2 bucks an hour working a job that draws blank stares from most people I try to explain it to – well, it’s hard to make that look good on paper.  But I’m a girl who has Dollywood buried in her resumé – when did I get so concerned about looking good on paper?  I don’t know where those insecurities come from – the fact is I take a lot of pride in the work that I do and the state where I grew up.  This year should give me the opportunity to deepen my understanding of both while actually getting to see my family on a regular basis.

That 2000 mile gap is still going to nag me in the opposite direction now – a lot – but this is what happens when you fling open pandora’s box and create a bunch of homes for yourself.  It has never been more obvious to me that home is moreso a collection of shared experiences feelings and ideas that connect us to the people around us than any physical space.  One day I hope to give it walls, a roof and a woodstove – a barn and a chicken coop too;  for now, my experiment in mobile homes continues.

To the mitten!

** Where is home for you?  How have you gone about defining and creating it for yourself?

** Are you living far from where you grew up?  If so, why did you choose to leave?  Do you think you’ll ever move back?