Happy, Simple Little Life

Living a happy, simple little life

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The Last Official Day of the Challenge .. and an Unexpected (and Happy) Realization

So it’s July 31.

What have we learned (besides how difficult it is to perfect a simple loaf of homemade bread)?

Loaf of bread

The lessons have been many, and all have been very meaningful, and an accurate way to sum them up in a simple statement eludes me. At minimum, the highlights include:

    • understanding how much easier it is to eat seasonally and locally—even in a tricky climate—than I’d originally imagined … certainly at this time of year
The second (and more successful) attempt at homemade pasta with a simple tomato-basil topping

The second (and more successful) attempt at homemade pasta with a simple tomato-basil topping

    • investigating produce we’d never seen or even heard of
Red carrots!

Red carrots!

But they're still orange on the inside!

But they’re still orange on the inside!

    • gaining insight into the vast variety of foods that can be—and are—produced by members of our community
    • comprehending how much more is involved in our food production that we’d imagined … and understanding just how much more we have to learn
    • learning how much fun it is to flip the concept of meal planning on its head—that instead of planning a meal and then writing a shopping list required for it, we have learned to creatively devise meals based upon what we are able to find that is fresh and local—and how satisfying that is
Salsa-topped eggs, roasted beets and carrots, and Japanese eggplant

Salsa-topped eggs, roasted beets and carrots, and Japanese eggplant

Anaheim peppers stuffed with fresh tomatillo salsa

Anaheim peppers stuffed with fresh tomatillo salsa

  • discovering the unexpected sense of community by becoming acquainted with those who grow our food … and how incredible it feels to be able to support them in their efforts

I have put considerable thought into why I enjoy visiting farms and farmers’ markets so much; quite literally, they have become something to which I very much look forward. And I’ve realized that it is not only because we never know what we’ll find there or what happy new discoveries we’ll make; it is also because just about everyone we meet at farms and farmers’ markets smiles at us. This is in marked contrast to our typical grocery store experiences, where those who sell the food have absolutely no hand or personal investment of any kind in the food’s production. At farms and farmers’ markets, it is apparent how proud the farmers are about the foods they’ve produced; they are eager to answer questions, excited to engage in dialogue, and graciously accept sincere compliments. I have realized that, without even actively seeking it, we have developed camaraderie and even something resembling genuine friendships along the way as a result of this project. We have found in our community farmers a shared love of great food and excellent nutrition, of environmental stewardship, of care and protection for sentient beings. It is something akin to unintentional activism … and until now, I’d never thought of it in such terms.

So tomorrow is August 1 … and we will start our day with a cup of coffee. I will sink my teeth into the chocolate I’ve been fantasizing about for weeks. We’ll once again enjoy such delights as oatmeal and nuts and perhaps the occasional avocado or banana. We’re looking forward to once again using spices; even basic black pepper and cinnamon will seem to dramatically inspire our dishes. I just might crack into a bottle of wine bought on a recent trip to Virginia sometime soon.

But, to our surprise, the arrival of August 1 does not feel like the saving grace we’d originally anticipated it to be, and we also don’t feel as though the month of July was fraught with deprivation or that it was a miserable test of wills. This, too, has been a pleasant surprise. In fact, we plan to continue feeding ourselves very much in this same way indefinitely; while we will reincorporate some out-of-region offerings, we are committed to acquiring the majority of our food as we have done throughout this month. In fact, I already cannot imagine having to rely exclusively on grocery stores again, and I very much hope I never have to.

I have been so grateful for this experience and for everything I have learned.

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Battle Wounds!

Finding our supply of the best eggs in the universe once again depleted, we made the pilgrimage up to the Choiniere Family Farm to replenish our stock. Upon arrival, we discovered two dozen of the happy little miracles set aside for us, whereupon we met up with Guy in the barnyard, armed with basket in hand and trusty Scout wagging joyously at his side. “Let’s see if we can find another dozen for you,” Guy said, “and make it a little more worth your while.” He handed me the basket. “I’ll even let you collect them!”

Cheering, I excitedly pounced at the opportunity. Save my first up-close-and-personal experience with hens only a few short months ago in a small coop in Central Virginia—and that really didn’t even count because I didn’t even get an egg—I’d never had the good fortune to forage for eggs fresh from the good little ladies who’d laid them. I’m not sure what I was expecting; I suppose I’d perhaps envisioned a cozy, bucolic scene in which soft and perhaps slightly snoozy hens—taking great pride in their important role in this entirely symbiotic relationship—would chirp a pleasant good morning to me as I gently reached beneath them and closed my hand tenderly around their eggs. Perhaps I’d thought I’d murmur soothingly to them, pat them on their little heads, thank them politely for the eggs, and stroll softly away with my basket swinging gaily from my forearm, stepping out into a breathtakingly sunny morning with the skies full of singing and swooping birds, the fragrance of sun-warmed hay perfuming the world. Tra-la-la-la.

I suppose it’s ridiculous but nonetheless entirely true that, before this morning, it had never occurred to me that the hens would not exactly be overjoyed to relinquish the eggs for which they’d worked so hard—and that, as a result, there was the potential for something of a battle of wills between both parties who wanted said eggs. As I gigglingly approached my first hen and began reaching forward, I was dismayed when she looked me right in the eye and screeched menacingly. I snapped my hand back and blinked bleakly at Guy. “Oh!” I exclaimed. “Will she bite me?” (How ludicrous to use the word bite regarding a creature devoid of teeth.)

Guy chuckled. “She’s feeling you out,” he said. “She’s trying to see who’s in charge. If you’re calm and in control, she won’t peck you.”

Tentatively, I reached forward again. The chicken screamed. I snapped my hand back. “Are you sure?”

Guy assured me, “Even if she pecks you, it won’t hurt. Once she realizes that she can’t scare you, she’ll stop.”

I stood there staring down this virtually defenseless five-pound creature and realized that my knees were quaking. I laughed incredulously at my own cowardice; it was suddenly inconceivable to me that I felt fear in the face of this little feathery lady armed only with a beak, a shrilly voice, and defiance. I squared my shoulders and plunged in, quavering, “Excuse me, little lady!” And she pecked me!

In the epic egg gatherer-versus-chicken battle, the egg gatherer emerged victorious ... but not unscathed ...

In the epic egg gatherer-versus-mighty-chicken battle, the egg gatherer emerged victorious … but not unscathed …

Miss it the first time? Look more closely. Gathering eggs is not for the faint of heart!

Miss it the first time? Look more closely. Gathering eggs is not for the faint of heart!

In Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he discusses at length the importance of becoming a part of the life cycle of the foods one eats, including the less enjoyable aspects of food acquisition, such as participating in the slaughter of animals if one chooses to eat them. Given that so much of what we as a society typically eat is purchased in vast, refrigerated commercial spaces, already portioned out, attractively packaged and cleverly marketed, it is virtually impossible for the average consumer to identify with all of the vast effort involved on the part of every single person engaged in the production of food—and particularly high-quality, wholesome food. It occurred to me as I jerked back my pecked finger and examined the broken skin with some degree of shock that, every time I’ve purchased eggs from the Choinieres or from any family farm, someone has had to go out and brave these feisty little ladies for me. All I’ve had to do is hand over the money and continue on my merry way. I’m not the one out there caring for these animals, seeing to their needs throughout their lives and then seeing to their final needs after their lives have ended—every bit of it in a humane, responsible, respectful way. I’m not the one who’s under assault from vigilant and protective creatures when I’m trying to take from them something very personal and precious. Investing energy and intent in some of these behind-the-scenes aspects of food is allowing me to become infinitely more cognizant of my role in this cycle, as well, and it affords me sharper clarity into the widespread and varied impacts of the decisions I make with regard to how I feed myself and the amount of respect with which I regard my food—and those who produce it—and how it arrives on my plate. It is both truly gratifying and deeply humbling. I realize just how much more I have to learn. I realize just how much I have always taken good food for granted.

I trudged from hen to hen, gingerly groping beneath them to see what I could find, sometimes getting pecked and sometimes not. When at last we’d managed to find another dozen, we headed back to pack them up and put them in the car. I proudly showed off my first-ever battle wound to Guy, feeling somewhat more worldly for having acquired it and having a smug and vainglorious sense that I now possessed insider knowledge about life on the farm.

Guy then displayed his forearm, deeply grooved and scarred over with angry red slash marks. “These are from the meat birds two weeks ago,” he said of the scars. “They really put up a fight!”

Not a day has passed during this month-of-July challenge when I haven’t learned a valuable lesson and when I haven’t gained an even greater perspective and a deeper appreciation for the true art that is farming … and gardening … and foraging … and food preservation. Not a day has gone by when I haven’t felt even more grateful for people like the Choinieres and the Gervaises and the Sorensen/Marchants and the DePalma/Goughs and all of the wonderful people we have met who champion efforts to care for their animals and their gardens and the earth and themselves … and all of us.

Here it is again … evidence of today’s amazing perspective. While I seriously doubt it will, I hope it scars! It would be an important reminder of what I’ve learned whenever I saw it. These are not lessons that I want to forget.

Miss it the first time? Look more closely. Gathering eggs is not for the faint of heart!

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A Big Hooray for CSAs!

In the bitterly cold, blustery, seemingly endlessly dark winter months when we ached for a glimpse of some blue sky or a blade of green grass, we spent a lot of time fantasizing about our spring garden. We spent countless hours researching gardening designs, investigating types of raised beds, perusing racks of seeds, and reading as much as we could get our hands on about coaxing food from the earth. We bought books, scoured websites, clipped articles, and sent countless e-mail inquiries to various industry experts. We absolutely couldn’t wait for the season to change, for the snow to finally melt away, and the ground to thaw.

Spring came. We gigglingly lugged out our supplies and all of our seeds. We went plant-start and soil shopping. We set up our tumbling composters.

We ended up with a significantly smaller garden than we’d originally planned in the depths of winter … and when really hot weather arrived—along with a bumper crop mosquitoes spawned from nearly two and a half straight months of devastating downpours that left much of our area in soggy ruins—we suddenly found our feverish desire to spend all of our free time out in our garden rapidly dissipating. Sure, we go out every day to check on our (relatively maintenance-free) plants, and we pick the occasional bit of produce, and while we’re of course still very much interested in growing and preserving a good deal of our own food, we’ve realized in the throes of summertime that we aren’t the ambitious gardeners that our sunlight-deprived selves of the past winter believed us to be. (Good thing we didn’t pack up our lives and move to a hotter, sweatier climate just to scratch the gardening itch, hmm?)

So what this means, of course, is that we’ve gotten a bit more clarity and a good reality check about the type of gardening we are really interested in doing, if we’re truly going to be honest with ourselves, which I suppose could be most accurately summed up as “set it and forget it” gardening. Luckily for us, there are a lot of great resources out there about that very sort of thing.

Also luckily for us is that we’re able to support our local farmers, not only through farmers’ markets and roadside stands but also through their CSAs (community-supported agriculture).

Our first experience with a CSA was a number of years ago, and to be honest, it wasn’t a great experience. On the appointed day, we often ended up with vast quantities of vegetables that we couldn’t possibly use up between the two of us before they started to go by … and that was even the produce we really loved. It happened on more than one occasion that we found large amounts of something we just plain couldn’t bear for one reason or another, leaving us to figure out what to do with it. It was somewhat disheartening to realize that we’d prepaid for food that we would never have selected in a grocery store or from a farm stand given the choice.

And then we stumbled upon River Berry Farm, whose CSA has an entirely different model: participants in the CSA get a prepaid card in the amount of their choosing, and with that prepaid card (which includes some bonus funds as a thank-you from the farmers), they can select whatever they’d like to buy—whenever they’d like to buy it—from the farm store. Produce! Cut flowers! Potting soil! Plant starts! It is up to the participants. That was a CSA we could feel good about, so we signed up. And it has been fabulous.

And now in our second year of a CSA with River Berry Farm, we’ve discovered that Savage Gardens also has a similar CSA model, so we’re getting one with them, too. We sincerely hope that more farms adopt that model; it really is so much more serviceable and so much more attractive an option.

Meanwhile, we’ve been putting our CSA and farmers’ markets hauls to excellent use. Cooking is fun again, even in the smoldering, sticky heat of July.

Sauteed carrots with fresh garlic and wild leek blossoms

Sauteed carrots with fresh garlic and wild leek blossoms

Roasted new potatoes with scallions and garlic

Roasted new potatoes with scallions and garlic

I keep forgetting to take photographs of the freshly baked bread loaves we’ve been baking; they’re so tantalizing coming right out of the oven that we seem to lose all sense, hacking into it and devouring it with such unadulterated zeal that it is only afterward when we’re left with mangled crumbs does it occur to us that—oops!—yet another loaf ravaged before a single photograph could be taken.

Must … exercise discipline … and … restraint!

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Beauty in Simplicity

Years ago, I edited an Italian cookbook that regaled the simplistic approach to meal preparation. At the time, we were flexing our culinary muscles, so to speak, often spending hours laboring over a single, highly complex dish, experimenting with exotic, difficult-to-find ingredients, specialized tools and equipment, and unforgiving preparation techniques. We made some exquisite-looking dishes, to be sure, and we often had fun doing it, but after a while, the mere thought of preparing something—especially on a punishingly hot summer day—was discouraging. Enter the days of nibbling and grazing, which—while certainly a fine and probably healthy way to nourish one’s self, particularly with foods like seeds and fresh crudités—became fairly uninspiring after a while. Food consumption became perfunctory.

Another important lesson learned as a result of this little challenge is a reminder of the primary message in that Italian cookbook I’d edited: food doesn’t have to be complicated or ridiculously time consuming to be scrumptious and good for you. With very fresh ingredients picked at their prime and a little creative inspiration, a seemingly ordinary tomato can transform into unsurpassed splendor. A dish of berries can be utterly divine. Cauliflower and a couple of other ingredients can create a dish that is truly out of this world.

That lesson has been refreshing, because indeed, we really do enjoy the ceremony and the good fortune of being able to prepare and then sit down to a wonderful meal, and remembering that the meal need not require superior culinary ability, costly equipment or ingredients, or even a flair for the avant-garde in vision or technique has been a welcomed gift.

Fresh tomatillo salsa omelet with new potatoes and scallions

Fresh tomatillo salsa omelet with new potatoes and scallions, served with a simple cup of blueberries

Food is nourishment, and it is right to celebrate it. It is a great blessing to have access to an abundance of fresh, healthy food, and it is right to afford its consumption—preferably with good companionship—the proper respect it deserves. One of the best ways to do that, I’ve found, is to champion simple, wholesome ingredients for their own uniqueness and for their contributions to a meal rather than scramble to find ways to overcomplicate them. Truly good food needs nothing to make it shine; good food shines all on its own.

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Cheese! Glorious Cheese!

We’ve made a few minor concessions since the beginning of this challenge; the first of which was salt, the reasons for which were described in this post. The second concession was yeast, which allows us to not only purchase a type of bread called Cyrus Pringle made by Red Hen Bakery that uses 100 percent local organic wheat (produced by Nitty Gritty Grain Company, which was briefly discussed in this post) but also allows us to bake our own bread (more about that in an upcoming post). The third concession has been vinegar … which allows us to enjoy homemade farmer’s cheese made by Savage Gardens.

We discovered Savage Gardens last year. It is a beautiful organic farm in what happens to be one of the prettiest places in Vermont, and everyone who lives there—right down to Whiskey the dog—welcomes you and makes you feel like you belong. Busy little chickens roam around contentedly or settle in for a snooze in the shade depending upon their pleasure. Morocco the cow placidly chews her cud and moos softly when you croon to her. It is such a happy place. And another bonus? They make and sell their own farmer’s cheese! That is a serious jackpot for us since we’ve sorely missed cheese during this happy little challenge. Now we need not miss it any longer.

At around the same time, we also stumbled upon the Darby Farm. We were delighted to discover that, in addition to a wide variety of crops and even raw honey, they raise some fabulous brandywine tomatoes and some world-class jalapeno peppers. Since then, we’ve been regularly pilgrimaging up to the Champlain Islands to visit these farms and buy some of the most amazing produce.

Recently, we quite gleefully discovered that both of these farms—among many other vendors—set up shop at the Champlain Islands Farmers’ Market on Wednesday afternoons. We had a field day picking out tasty treats for a variety of dinner options.

Oven-roasted jalepenos with farmer's cheese and poblano peppers with pico de gallo ... and more farmer's cheese

Oven-roasted Darby Farm jalepenos with farmer’s cheese from Savage Gardens, along with poblano peppers with pico de gallo … and more farmer’s cheese

Poutine! These are new potatoes in a chantrelle mushroom gravy and fresh farmer's cheese.

Poutine! These are new potatoes in a chantrelle mushroom gravy topped with more fresh farmer’s cheese from Savage Gardens.

I think, at this point, it is safe to say that this only-eating-what-we-can-directly-purchase-from-those-who-produce-it challenge is nowhere near as difficult as I’d originally imagined it to be. In fact, it is a lot of fun! I can’t believe how much I look forward to visiting farmers’ markets during the week; it’s like a giddy surprise every time we visit a vendor, practically squealing with excitement at what’s available. “Ooh! Blueberries!” “Oh, look!” (Poke spouse in ribs.) “New potatoes!” “Hey, check it out! Jalapenos!”

What has been particularly fun and adventurous about all of this is that we’re finding that our process for food planning and preparation has been entirely flipped on its head; where we traditionally planned a dinner menu or a variety of meals, wrote a shopping list, and then went out to stores in search of the necessary ingredients, we are now anticipatorily scoping out our choices at a wide variety of farmers’ markets, collecting what strikes our fancy, merrily lugging home our booty, and planning meals around what we’ve selected. It has broadened our horizons, stretched our creativity, and given us a sense of humor and a greater sense of spontaneity. What has sometimes felt akin to drudgery in the past is now simply a happy culinary adventure. We’re learning a lot—about what grows around here, about what’s in season at what time of year, about what some farmers recommend we do with certain ingredients. We’ve tried foods like kohlrabi, chantrelle mushrooms, honeycomb, wild ginger and wild leek, and sour cherries that we’d never seen anywhere before, and as such, we’ve had the incredible opportunity to introduce new options into our diet.

Furthermore, while our farmers’ market grocery bill has obviously increased significantly (how could it not when farmers’ market produce is all we’re eating?), our grocery store shopping bill is a cool zero (and, obviously, so too is our restaurant/coffee shop/tea house/pastry shop bill). And it is infinitely more gratifying to purchase food directly from the person responsible for producing it, talking with him or her about the (literal) fruits of his or her labor, and ensuring that every single dime of what we spend directly supports our friends and neighbors. That alone is enough to make the food taste better and for our bodies to feel healthier. The unequivocally superior taste, freshness, and quality of the food is a delightful bonus.

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Best Eggs in the Universe

More than a year ago, we visited the Choiniere Family Farm to check out their operation firsthand, meet the family and the animals in their care, and walk their pastures. We’d visited farms before, and we’ve visited many since, but the Choiniere Family Farm remains to this day our very favorite farm visit experience.

For one thing, at the time of our first visit to the Choinieres’ farm, we—having watched perhaps one too many documentaries about the horrors of the food industry and about dairy in particular—were following a vegan diet. But what we saw filled us with hope and provided evidence that dairy can be produced in a humane and ethical manner. We saw clean barns and happy cows contentedly grazing on lush, wide-open pastures, some with their calves companionably at their sides. Perhaps most astoundingly, we saw cows sidling up to Guy for affection. The cows in his care are not only not terrified of him, they genuinely like him. That was something we had never seen before.

He talked with us earnestly about his farming practices and his philosophies. While many other dairy farms force their cows to calve almost without rest and fervently track the milk output, furiously charting and graphing their profitability, Guy has an entirely different philosophy. When I’d inquired about the absence of anklets on his cows (devices used by most farms which identify the cows and track their milk production), he laughed and said, “I don’t worry about it. My cows live longer and are happier when they aren’t forced into unrealistic long-term milk quotas. Their extra years on my farm more than make up for it, and everyone is happier.” Looking around his farm at the cows who actively sought out scratches and attention, it was easy to believe it.

As a result of the visit—and after a great deal more soul-searching and ongoing dialogue with the Choiniere family via e-mail—we reincorporated select dairy back into our diets. Indeed, our time spent there convinced us that not all dairy operations are … well, what we’ve read and seen a great deal about. This is farming with a conscience, and it is something we can support.

As it happens, the farm—in addition to a variety of other products—also raises free-range, organically fed chickens, and these chickens just so happen to lay the best eggs in the universe. While admittedly I have not sampled every egg in the universe, I will stand by my assertion that these are indeed the best until the unlikely day comes when I am proven wrong. These eggs are so amazing that we’re willing to drive more than forty miles round trip to get them. (Yes, I know that isn’t exactly the most environmentally conscious thing to do—not even with a hybrid vehicle—but I guess that simply proves my point about the quality of these eggs.)

Best eggs in the universe!

Best eggs in the universe (seen here with freshly chopped scallions)! Yes, the yolks really are that gorgeous color!

We’ve sometimes eaten these eggs at every meal. They are astoundingly good. And the chickens responsible for them are seriously happy little ladies. When we recently made the pilgrimage up to the farm for our egg run, we found the egg refrigerator devoid of eggs; unsurprisingly, they’d all been snapped up by local merchants clamoring to get them onto their shelves. Beth stepped in and saved the day, graciously going out to collect whatever the little ladies had deposited in their coop. We gleefully drove off with our eggs, some of them still warm from the hen, happy as clams. We cooked up some of the eggs for dinner as soon as we arrived back home.

Visiting farms and becoming acquainted with the families who run them and gaining a greater appreciation for their operation can be an eye-opening and even life-changing experience. I can say for certain that, as a result of this years-long journey of exploring and seeking out greater insight into the origins of the food we eat and the manner in which it arrives on our plates, I have grown infinitely closer to nature and to that which nourishes us. We have developed unique friendships and widespread camaraderie with many people we would otherwise not likely have had the grand opportunity to meet. We feel appreciably more grateful for good food and for our ability to acquire it from the amazing people who coax it from their environment.

Now all I have to do is identify the best chocolate in the universe.

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The Uncharted Waters of Homemade Fresh Pasta

Pasta. Just the sound of it sounds like a hug. Pasta is so versatile and therefore such a staple in our household that the threat of foregoing it for the July locavore challenge was sufficient motivation for finally (after many years of talking about it) trying to make it fresh at home.

As it turns out, it is a fairly simple and straightforward process; the vast majority of the dishes we’ve prepared for dinner guests over the years have been infinitely more complex.

Still, I learned a few things about what not to do next time; namely, I will create a thinner pasta. I suppose it should have occurred to me that the pasta dough would swell after it was extruded and then boiled, but it didn’t.

Anyway, here it is: our first fresh pasta experiment. It included leftover chicken from our roasted chicken, fresh peas, chanterelles, garlic, and scallions bought from various farmers, as well as cherry tomatoes and parsley picked from our garden.

First-ever attempt at homemade (fresh) pasta

First-ever attempt at homemade (fresh) pasta

It went down very easily, particularly with a glass of local wine.

Eating locally really isn’t as difficult as I’d envisioned it to be!

(Although I still really miss the coffee …)