Thursday, October 13, 2011

All-Weather Farming and The Best Arugula I've Ever Tasted


I spent last weekend in Maine for an Indian summer last hurrah. It was an unexpectedly balmy 84 degrees and I felt disappointed that I didn't get to wear the sweaters I'd packed, but I ate some incredible food.

My first meal was dinner at the venerable Fore Street in Portland, and my first bite of salad exploded with a rich, peppery heat. I had to put my fork down and look at the plate. It was an arugula salad; what was the big deal here?

The big deal, it turned out, was the farm where the arugula came from: Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport, about 20 miles north of Portland. I sent the farmer, Lisa Turner, an e-mail to arrange a visit.

I found her packing a shipment of fall veggies in her barn. Lisa is an all-season farmer in a part of the country where farming in all seasons is a practical impossibility, or so you would think. The ground is frozen rock-hard for four months. Temperatures dip below -20! There's a good reason no one wants to visit Maine anytime after November 1 (except to ski): It's God-awful cold.

Lisa-484.jpgLisa Turner heads Laughing Stock Farms, where she grows some of the most delicious arugula I've ever tasted.

But while Lisa's farm consists of about 10 acres of land, it's also home to a small village of translucent greenhouses. And because of them, Lisa and her husband, Ralph, have been growing vegetables through the depths of harsh, unforgiving winters for the past 15 years. The couple harvest mesclun and mustard greens and that incredible arugula year-round for restaurants like Fore Street, Local Sprouts Cooperative, Street and Company, and many more, as well as their 140 CSA members.

As I walked into one of their greenhouses, I was hit with a wall of intense heat and moisture--even my camera fogged up. Each greenhouse is equipped with a tank of used restaurant fry oil that Lisa burns to keep her greens sprouting all winter. She harvests the arugula only once (instead of trimming the plant as it grows), and that technique, combined with its slow growing, must be the secret to its incredibly intense and fresh flavor.

There are other all-season farmers in Maine, too, and each has his own method. Eliot Coleman--who literally wrote the book on deep-winter farming--uses frost blankets (they're like comforters for lettuce) instead of bio-fuel, for instance.

But regardless of the technique, the lesson here is that with enough ingenuity and willpower, you can eat the freshest, local-est arugula all year long, no matter where you live.

I plan to build myself a mini greenhouse, inspired by Lisa's hearty-weather farming. With any luck, I'll be growing my own all-season greens in no time.


All-Season Arugula Salad
adapted from Fore Street Restaurant, Portland, ME
4 servings

1 cup port
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsp. kosher salt, divided
3/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, divided
1 medium onion
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
4 oz. goat cheese
2 Tbsp. heavy cream
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
5 oz. arugula
1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skins removed
6 fresh figs, quartered

Bring port, sugar, 1/2 tsp. salt, and 1/2 tsp. pepper to a boil in a small heavy skillet and cook until liquid is reduced to 1/2 cup. Remove from heat and set aside to let port reduction cool.

Cut onion in half, then cut each half into thin wedges. Bring apple cider vinegar, 1 tsp. salt, and 2/3 cup water to a simmer in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and stir in onion. Let sit at room temperature until ready to use.

In a small bowl, stir together goat cheese and cream with a fork until fluffy.

Whisk 1 Tbsp. port reduction, balsamic vinegar, and oil in a large bowl. Whisk in 1/2 tsp. each salt and pepper. Toss arugula with dressing, then plate with drained onions, hazelnuts, goat cheese, and figs. Drizzle with additional port reduction.

Friday, October 7, 2011

It's The Great Cheese Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

Nick Fauchald shooting (probably missing) a clay bird with a Mossberg 500 12-gauge shotgun. Adam Houghtaling is sitting on the thrower, the catapult-like contraption that hurls the clay disk into the air. Charlie, the dog waits for his turn.
Photograph by William Hereford

Last weekend we had a bit of a bro weekend at the farm. A clan of New York City food writers and photographers came down to the country for 24 hours of manliness. We drank whiskey and shot clay birds (in that order--your correspondent does not recommend you try this progression; nevertheless, it was fun). We rode the tractor and the motorcycles, chopped wood, played poker, and all in all had a respectable, testosterone-filled time.

The thing about hosting a houseful of dudes who write about food for a living is that at some point, they'll be hungry. And the food, well, it needs to be really good, but also not dainty. I was in charge of dinner and it was my task to make some top-notch fall-friendly guy food. Not as easy as you might think.

pumpkins-484.jpgPhotograph by Ian Knauer

I'll cut to the chase here and talk about the star of the dinner table: pumpkin. (But you should know that the black bear sauerbraten, while very flavorful and certainly manly, was a little tough. I've come to the conclusion that 24 hours in a vinegar marinade is too long for bear meat.)

Back to pumpkins. Now that we're fully into fall, they are everywhere (despite what you may have read about the great pumpkin shortage). They are cheap and make a majestic centerpiece for any dinner. My favorite pumpkin recipe (aside from pie) is a sort of fondue in which the squash itself acts as the cooking vessel for the cheese mixture. (There is a similar one in the October issue of BA by my friends at Canal House.)

After the seeds and pulp have been scooped out, the pumpkin is filled with layers of toasts, cheeses, and cream with broth. It's then baked until everything melts together and the squash is cooked. When you bring it to the table, there are always oohs and ahhs.

Photograph by William Hereford

Cheese-Stuffed Pumpkin

1 15" length of baguette, cut into 1/2" slices (7 oz. total)
1 6-7-lb. orange pumpkin
1 3/4 tsp. kosher salt, divided
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 cup low-salt chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
8 oz. grated white cheddar
8 oz. grated Swiss cheese such as Emmenthal or Gruyere
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil plus more for pan

Arrange a rack in lower third of oven and preheat to 450 degrees F.

Toast baguette slices in one layer on a baking sheet in oven until tops are browned. Set aside.

Using a sharp knife, cut a wide circle around pumpkin stem; remove top. Scrape out seeds and any loose fibers from inside pumpkin (reserve seeds for another use). Season pumpkin flesh with 3/4 tsp. salt.

Whisk together cream, broth, pepper, cayenne, and 1 tsp. salt in a medium bowl. Mix together cheeses in another bowl.

Put a layer of toasted baguette slices in bottom of pumpkin, then cover with about 1 cup cheese and about 1/2 cup cream mixture. Continue layering bread, cheese, and cream mixture, using all of cream mixture, until pumpkin is filled to within about 1/2" of opening.

Cover pumpkin with its top. Place pumpkin in a small oiled roasting pan. Brush outside of pumpkin all over with 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil. Bake until pumpkin is tender and filling is puffed, 1 1/4 - 1 1/2 hours. To serve, scoop out some of the flesh and cheesy pudding-like stuffing into each bowl.