Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Warming Answer to Nature's Freak Show


Fresh air is great. So are vegetables from the backyard garden. Watching the deer mill about under the apple trees is a very pleasant sight just after the sun rises. But the thing I love most about living in the country is the subtle day-to-day change of the seasons. You need to pay close attention to notice it, but every morning comes a bit later these days, every evening a bit earlier--and the colors of the leaves and the sun are in constant, gentle flux.

Then, last weekend, we had a freak-show blizzard that ruined everything. As of this writing, we still don't have electricity at the farm. What we do have is perfectly frostbitten kale that came a little early this year, thanks to that snowstorm.


Kale, along with other dark, leafy greens (collards, cabbage), is resistant to cold weather thanks to its thick, succulent, waxy leaves and stems, which is why it's prominent in cooler-weather cuisines (Eastern European food exalts the cabbage). But the plant also contains off-putting chemicals whose bitter taste makes some folks wince. It has to do with things called glucosinolates, and you can check out Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking to learn more about this sort of stuff than you probably want to know. The point is that the colder weather mellows those off-putting flavors and lets the sweetness of the leaves come through.That's good news for me because not-so-subtle cold snaps demand a warming reaction: soup!


Dinosaur Kale and White Bean Soup
4 servings


1 cup dried navy beans, soaked overnight
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large bunch dinosaur kale (also known as Tuscan kale, black kale, and Lacinato; but feel free to sub in any variety of kale you may have)
1/3 cup finely grated Parmesan


Drain beans, then transfer to a medium saucepan and add cold water to cover by 2" (at least six cups). Add bay leaf and thyme. Bring to a boil and cook until beans are tender, about 45 minutes.

Heat oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic, 1 tsp. salt, and 3/4 tsp. pepper and saute until onion is soft and garlic begins to brown, about 6 minutes.

Add onion mixture to beans in saucepan. Tear kale leaves into large pieces, discarding stems, and add to soup. Boil soup until kale is tender, 8-10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve soup sprinkled with cheese.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Squirrel in Every Pot


This may surprise you, but I didn't eat my first squirrel until I was well into my adult years, and it wasn't at the farm, or even in this country: It was in jolly old England, where squirrel has been all the rage for a couple of years. (The Brits are either more enlightened or less so than we are, depending on your worldview.)

I was at St. John restaurant and the chef, Fergus Henderson, was running a squirrel special. Before the waiter had finished describing it, I was eagerly nodding yes. The dish was served with porcini mushrooms and a deeply porky sauce, and I have to say, it was really, really good. The meat was a little bit woodsy, a little bit rabbitlike but unique unto itself. There was no doubt that I was eating game.


I shot my first squirrel early one morning last winter. The little critter had moved into the attic of the farmhouse, and his predawn antics had been waking me. As I carried the carcass into the woods, I felt terrible, and that's when I decided to try my hand at cooking the furry rodent.

Since then, I've eaten and served squirrel many times, and any dinner guest who's had enough gumption to taste a bite has loved it. If you ever get the chance, you should try it, too. Of course, it's not the sort of protein that grocery stores carry, so there's the very practical matter of needing to shoot, skin, and gut a squirrel before cooking it--a chore no one especially wants. But it's not as hard as you might think. I would go into the process here, but this isn't Garden & Gun. Instead, let's stick to the cooking part.


Low and slow is the way to go with any rodent (groundhog, guinea pig, etc.). Because it's fall and I have a bounty of apples, I slow-cooked the meat in apple cider with a carrot, an onion, and herbs until the meat fell off the bone. Then I cooked down the sauce and used it as a glaze. The result was a high-end nod to the sort of game cooking our friends across the Atlantic are doing (and we should be doing here in the U.S.) Eating squirrel is a sustainable choice, and it's also a delicious one.

Squirrel, Cider-Braised and -Glazed

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 squirrel, skinned, cleaned
1 1/2 cups apple cider
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 sprig tarragon
1 bunch parsley
1 tsp. each kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, divided
1 small shallot, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp. apple cider vinegar

Heat butter in a medium heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add onion and carrot and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 6 minutes. Add squirrel, cider, Dijon mustard, tarragon, 2 parsley sprigs, and 1/2 tsp. each salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and cover pot. Braise until meat is very tender, 2 1/2-3 hours. Let squirrel cool in braising liquid.

Once cool, remove squirrel from liquid and cut into serving pieces (hind legs, front legs, saddle). Strain braising liquid, reserving vegetables. Bring liquid to a boil and reduce, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until sauce measures 1/2 cup.

Preheat the broiler. Brush squirrel pieces with some of sauce. Broil until browned and heated through, 8-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, pick parsley leaves. Toss with shallot, oil, vinegar, and 1/2 tsp. each salt and pepper.

Serve squirrel with parsley salad, reserved vegetables, and remaining sauce.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Mulling Over Cider


We've been planting new fruit trees--apples, pears, etc.--annually for about six years, which is about how long it can take a new tree to fruit. We keep having to plant new trees because they don't all make it. Some die in the first year from harsh weather. Some die in the second year from attacks by bark-hungry deer or root-hungry groundhogs. Of the 10 trees we planted six years ago, just one survived to maturity. It was an Asian pear tree and would have fruited this year save for the fact that my father accidentally ran it over with the tractor.

But there are two ancient apple trees that keep bringing us fruit year after year. God only knows how many young trees had to be planted for these two to survive. I'd imagine the number to be in the dozens, if not the hundreds. As it is, we've got more apples than we could ever eat, so we press some of them into cider.

Press-w-mak-310.jpgLeft: Mak with the apple press

We have an old apple press that we keep tucked in a corner of the barn. It was probably made in the 1870s, just around the time the farmhouse was built, and like many things made during that era (like the farmhouse itself), it was built to last. Can you imagine your Jack LaLanne juicer lasting 140 years?

Last weekend, my cousins came to make cider, and Makaila (who has been featured in this column before), was a star presser. She meticulously washed any dirt from the fruit, then handed it to a grown-up, who cranked it through the grinder before pressing out the juice.

We stored much of the cider in fermentation carboys, where it will rot to about 6 percent alcohol hard cider over the winter. The rest we will drink fresh, cook with, or mull with spices and some whiskey into a comforting fall treat that perfectly pairs with the cool edge to the early fall air.


Whiskey-Mulled Cider
4-6 servings

3 cups apple cider
1 Tbsp. dark brown sugar
3 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1/4 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 cup whiskey, preferably Four Roses

Stir together cider, sugar, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a medium saucepan. Simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Let cider cool slightly, then stir in whiskey.