Thursday, April 28, 2011

For Morels and Love - Spring Rites

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I've been trying to practice being patient. It's not something I'm particularly
drawn to or good at. That's why I love to cook. Cooking delivers immediate
gratification. You can start with a few ingredients, and in no time you've made
something delicious, or at least edible. I find real pleasure in its immediacy.
Still, I've come to believe that some really great things are worth waiting for.

When the sun came out this afternoon after hours of rain, I decided to take a break from my farm chores and walk through the woods to look for morels. These elusive mushrooms are difficult to spot. They blend in with the forest floor and are scattered seemingly at random. Finding them requires a lot of patience. I probably walked past a hundred, never noticing one.

Their scarcity is even reflected in the phrases mycologists use. You forage for mushrooms. You hunt for morels.

About an hour into my wooded walk I started thinking that hunting for morels is a lot like trying to fall in love. In both, it's the idea of finding exactly what we are looking for that drives us. It's the hope that we'll find what will make us happy. And that really requires a lot of patience. As for the morels, well, the conditions have been perfect, I kept telling myself: a lot of rain and unseasonably warm days. But still--nothing. You never find morels when you're looking for them.

Just when I was about to give up and turn back toward the farmhouse, I saw, right in front of me, one perfect, beautiful morel. I took her picture and put the mushroom in a paper bag. Then I left the woods. When you finally find what you've been looking for, you should stop looking.

Back home, I made a snack: a small piece of toast topped with the mushroom (which I'd sautéed with shallot in a little butter), sprinkled with chives. Tomorrow, I might walk through the woods again, but I won't be hunting for morels. I'll just wait until they find me.

morel-on-toast-h.jpgPhotos by Ian Knauer

If you find only one morel, make it count. Here's a simple yet delicious way to do just that:

Morel on Toast

Serves 1 as a snack
Note: Unless you are an experienced mushroom hunter DO NOT forage for morels without an expert guide. Contact your local mycological society for help.

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

1 small piece bread

1 tsp. finely chopped shallot

1 morel, halved lengthwise

Kosher salt

Finely chopped chives

Melt butter in a small skillet over medium heat, then fry bread on both sides until crisp, about 2 minutes. Remove the toast, add shallot and morel to the skillet, and season to taste with salt. Cook, stirring, until the mushroom has softened and the shallot is browned, 2-3 minutes. Serve the mushroom on toast, garnished with chives.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Chicks Have Arrived - OR - All The Ladies in the House (the ladies...the ladies...the ladies!!!!)

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I got a voicemail from the post office first thing Monday

"Uhh, hi, Mr. Knauer, uhh... [long pause] ...your chicks are

Great, I thought, just in time for Easter.

A few months ago I was cleaning out a section of the barn
that no one had set foot in for generations. Digging around,
I found a wooden cage tucked in the corner. The cage was
wrapped with chicken wire and was clearly designed to
raise baby chicks. I was inspired. Fortunately, there is
also an old chicken coop on the farm--a building built
precisely for raising chickens, something that no one in
my family has done for 50 years.

It also happens that I eat a lot of eggs. I have them most
mornings for breakfast. I eat them for lunch, which this
time of year means hard-boiled and crumbled over
asparagus. I fry them and place them on top of pizza
for dinner.

Given these facts, raising hens seemed like an easy thing
to justify. I went online and ordered 20 laying hen
chicks of various breeds for about $2 each. And when I
picked up the box at the post office, I almost giggled.
They were the cutest things, maybe ever.

At the moment they are camped out near the heater
in the living room of the farmhouse. In a few weeks
they'll be able to wander around outside. (It will take
2-3 months before I see any eggs from them.) And
that will bring on its own set of challenges. One of
those challenges, perhaps the biggest, will be the fox.


There is a fox that lives in the old hay field, just above
the grape vines. She's raising four cubs. Every morning,
she and I stare at each other from a distance as her cubs
frolic and tumble in the spring grass. And, because I
know I can't out-smart the fox, I'm trying to make friends
with her. Just after sunrise, I bring her and her cubs some
food. It might be a leftover burger or some pork. So far,
I haven't fed her any chicken with the hopes that I might
foster a mutual understanding.

I am hopeful that she won't eat my chickens, and to that
end I'm fixing up the coop to give them a safe place to
roost at night. During the day, they'll be protected by
my dogs. Again, I am hopeful. I am also naive. If I'm
lucky, I'll be able to stave her off long enough to eat
some of my chicken's eggs this summer.


In the meantime, here's a recipe for my take on
asparagus vinaigrette, using purchased eggs:

Asparagus Vinaigrette
Active time: 15 minutes Total time: 25 minutes

Serves 4

1 1/2 lb. asparagus, trimmed
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1/4 cup cider vinegar
2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. kosher salt plus more for seasoning
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. capers
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
Freshly ground black pepper
1 hard-boiled egg

Blanch asparagus in a large pot of boiling salted water
until bright green and crisp-tender, 4-6 minutes
(depending on the thickness of the asparagus).
Transfer to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking;
let cool completely. Drain and pat dry.

Place shallot in a small saucepan with vinegar, sugar,
and 1 tsp. salt. Bring to a simmer, then remove from
heat and let stand 5 minutes. Reserve 1 Tbsp. of vinegar
mixture, then drain shallot.

Whisk together oil, capers, Dijon mustard, reserved
vinegar mixture, and shallot in a small bowl. Season to
taste with salt and pepper. Toss asparagus with the
dressing, then transfer to serving platter. Force egg
through a sieve and sprinkle over the asparagus.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Last of the Ketchup, The First of the Garden

The last of the ketchup, the first of the garden

There is only one more jar of homemade ketchup left in the pantry. It is the end of last summer’s bounty and I’ve been putting off opening it. In fact, back in late February, I even bought a bottle of Heinz because I couldn’t bear the thought of opening my last jar of the homemade stuff so early in the year.

But now it’s April. The other night I made burgers and tapped out the Heinz bottle on the first bun. After it sputtered and farted out the last of its industrial-strength ketchup, I opened my final jar, noting the Sharpie’d label on the lid: “Ketchup 8/10”. I was fine doing this now, since a week ago I’d set up 100 new tomato plants in seed starters for this season’s crop. Also, I really wanted my burger to taste like it had been sun-kissed. And it did, because I made that ketchup at the very moment the tomatoes were perfectly ripe. I can only hope I’ll get the timing right again this summer.

I didn’t just start tomatoes last week. I planted 100 hot chile seeds, too, and cauliflower, kale, and collards, but let’s talk about them later. Right now, I want to tell you about a tomato seed that has me pretty charged up.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of tomato varieties available for home gardeners on the Internet and in catalogs. One of my favorite sources is Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Mostly I save my own tomato seeds from year to year, as I did for this year’s plants, so I often just skim over the tomato section when I’m buying my vegetable seeds. But one variety jumped out at me this year, and I’m pretty sure that’s because the pantry was so low on jars of homemade ketchup. This tomato is called Heinz 1350 VF.

The last part of its name—1350 VF—is an indicator of the plant’s crossbreed and its resistance to verticillium and fusarium wilts, which means it’s hardy. And “Heinz” means that it’s one of the varieties that the H. J. Heinz Company uses to make its famous ketchup; the tomato was introduced in 1963.

Heinz ketchup (as you know if you’ve ever tasted it) is one of the few perfectly balanced sauces in the world. Malcolm Gladwell wrote this beautifully researched story for The New Yorker all about how perfect Heinz ketchup tastes. The company is based in Pennsylvania (although it buys tomatoes from growers all over). My farm is also in the Keystone State. While I don’t expect my ketchup to taste exactly like Heinz, I know that using one of its tomatoes is not a bad move. I’m so thrilled about these plants that as far as I’m concerned, August can’t come too soon.

But there’s a lot that will happen between now and then. In this column, we’ll talk about the garden and its seasonal evolution. We’ll talk about chickens and ducks and bees and a stubborn old 1952 Ford tractor, too. We’ll talk about family and friends and cooking and eating.

Every week, I hope to bring you a recipe that will highlight a perfect piece of produce and how you can cook it to perfection. In August, it might be a Heinz 1350 VF tomato ketchup recipe. But for now, let me give you my favorite burger recipe. And, unless you have a lonely jar of homemade ketchup in your pantry that you’ve been saving for just the right moment, use Heinz. When it comes to ketchup, they know what they’re doing.

Beefy Chipotle Burgers Make 4 burgers 1 large garlic clove 11/4 lb ground beef chuck 1 tablespoon finely chopped chipotle in adobo Accompaniments: Ketchup; mustard; lettuce; tomato; onion; rolls Preheat grill for direct heat grilling. Mince and mash garlic clove to a paste with 1/4 tsp salt. Gently mix beef with chipotle, garlic, 3/4 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper, then form into 4 (4 1/4-inch-diameter) patties. Oil grill rack then grill burgers, turning once, until grill marks appear and burgers are medium-rare, 4 to 5 minutes. Serve with accompaniments, namely, ketchup