Who Grew Your Food: Shane Robbins

When I lived out west, one of the treats I really loved was getting bison burgers.  I liked the flavor and texture.  This was well before I taught myself much about food.  I was drawn to bison because it felt “western” and “exotic.”  Later, as I was educating myself about meat, bison came up a lot.  It is a leaner animal, and usually ranged, so it is eating grass, what it is meant to eat.  When we looked into obtaining bison, we found two major problems.  First, and foremost, no one raised bison locally, and second, even the far away places we did find it, it was cost prohibitive.  Luckily, as more people look to get involved with food production, more opportunities arise for consumers to purchase things like bison being raised closer to home.

Enter Shane Robbins, owner of Buck Wild Bison.

I had the opportunity to speak with Shane at the Collingswood Farmer’s Market a couple of weeks ago.  The very thing that drove me to write a book about eating better is what drove Shane to get involved with farming — he loves to eat.  The reason he chose to start raising bison was multi-faceted.  He became interested in the animal upon learning how close they came to extinction.  When one considers that the bison once roamed this country so thickly that a story was passed down about a settler and his family who took three days to pass through a single herd, it is mind-boggling to think that they could have been wiped out.  Shane learned about ranchers’ efforts to save and repopulate bison herds and wanted to be a part of it.

Because bison are an indigenous species, they are naturally adapted to North American living conditions and live “wild” in ways that other species cannot.  Almost every domesticated food animal in the common American diet came from somewhere else, mostly from Europe along with the people who were settling here.  The big exception is the turkey, but what we eat has little resemblance to that splendid wild bird that is experiencing a huge resurgence in Southern New Jersey.  But when that wild bird was prolific along the coast, prior to the 1600’s, it had buffalo for company.  The herds were not as large as those out west, and as the population increased, the buffalo population decreased.

What does all of this mean for Shane?  It means that bison are adapted.  They don’t get sick like other food animals.  They don’t require much more than weekly inspection.  Unlike cows, they calve on their own with no problems.  The caution is this: they are still wild, a little on the shy-side, can run 40 mph, and can jump a 5′ fence.  For the moment, that fence is in Pennsylvania, where Shane is leasing land from a “surrogate” farmer, who keeps an eye on things when he can’t be there.  Long term, though, Shane hopes to get a farm in New Jersey and bring things a little closer to home.

The bison are processed at Smucker’s in Mt. Joy, PA, where they are dry-aged for 21 days and then custom cut.  Shane brings a large variety to the market including burgers, roasts, sausage.  The day that I spoke with him, he was sold out of just about everything.

Why should you try bison?  It is a lean meat, with a nice beefy flavor.  Bison is easier to cook than grass-fed beef, which tends to dry out if you aren’t careful.  The Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio is much better than that of conventional beef and is heavy on CLA’s (good for your joints).  It has fewer calories than grass-fed beef (about 20% fewer) and conventional beef (about 35% fewer).

Why You Should and Can Cook at Home

Sometimes, an afternoon spent playing in the dirt with your son seems like a much better idea than cooking dinner.  In my eyes, practically any afternoon spent playing with my children was not time well spent, but time best spent.  When I speak to people about food, I get many defensive responses.  At the top of the list are: 1) I can’t cook, mostly because I never liked cooking and have grown to hate it, actually, which is very uncool these days because I can’t post a picture of what I just cooked on Instagram; 2) I can’t afford organic food.  It’s ridiculously expensive, and 3) I don’t have the time.  But there are many counterarguments for why you should and can cook at home.

Yes, You Can Cook

I am about to begin publishing a series of posts with recipes that are simple and straightforward, that even the most culinarily-impaired person can prepare.  I promise to include ingredients that most people use and eat on a regular basis.  No special kitchen tools, no ingredients that you have to buy at a specialty store or purchase online.  The goal is to encourage you to get into your kitchen.  Bring your children; bring your wife; bring your husband; bring your dog (ours are very good with clean-up when stuff “hits the deck”).  If you know how to turn on your stove, you are qualified to prepared these recipes.

Yes, You Can Afford Some Organic Food

Organic food is more expensive than conventional food.  I discuss this in another post.  But if you eat at a fast food place, and are feeding a family of four, you will probably spend about $25.  A pound of grass-fed organic beef runs about $6.50.  Add on $2.00 for rolls, $1.29 for organic leaf lettuce, less than a dollar for an organic tomato (less if you grow a tomato plant in a pot on your patio).  And maybe you get frozen fries for $2.50 (Not hard to make your own, but intimidating, so we’ll go with the frozen food section) and a bottle of soda for $1.99 (but you should drink water – it’s a lot better for you and much less expensive if it comes out of your tap and you filter it), you have spent less than $16, had some good bonding time with your family, and eaten organic food, and saved $9.00.

And you’re thinking, ‘Nine dollars?  All that for a nine-dollar savings?”  But let that add up.  Let’s say that you get fast food once a week.  Now it is $9 x 52 weeks a year, which is over $400.  Still not enough to get your attention? What if it also meant that your cholesterol levels returned to the normal zone and you could stop spending money on a prescription or two?  We tend to look at these kinds of things in a small context, but the truth is that what we eat and how we eat affects our physical and mental health.  So factor in time spent at the doctor – what is your time worth an hour?

Time is Relative

And speaking of an hour, the biggest complaint/defense I hear is “I don’t have the time.”  This is also a matter of perspective.  Some days are ridiculous.  We have them, too.  But many days are not; they are more I’d-rather-crash-on-the-couch-than-cook.  Let’s see if we can start to change that.

We can start with

Simple Burgers

  • 1 lb. of ground meat (you choose what you want to use, beef, lamb, turkey, etc.)
  • 1 t salt
  • ¼ t ground pepper
  • ¼ t onion powder

Mix all of this together and form four patties.  Fry them in a pan over a medium heat, about 6 minutes a side.  Put them on a platter in a warm spot.

If there isn’t any fat in the pan, add 1 T olive oil or butter and heat it.  Add 1 T flour and stir it around in the fat.  Add ½ C of milk, and stir until it thickens.  If you have some Worcestershire sauce, you could add a dash of that, but it isn’t necessary. Pour the sauce over the patties and take it to the table.

You can serve this with a salad that you have one of your family members make, or just slice up a head of lettuce and put some dressing on.

Start to finish, this takes about 25 minutes.

Focus on One: Perfect Pumpkin Pie

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Happy November.  It has been a while since I have had the time to write anything.  The opening of school has been very hectic, and as the first marking period wound down, I realized that in addition to other things I didn’t do this fall because I was so busy with school work, I hadn’t written a blog entry in months.  Focus on one?  Writing blog entries again?  Well, it IS November, and Thanksgiving is a mere 12 days away, so Focus on One: making the perfect pumpkin pie.  For years, I worked on perfecting my pumpkin pie and I think that after all of this time, I have finally got it down.

There are two things that make a pumpkin pie really great: one is using a mix of fresh pumpkin and butternut squash puree and the other is the pie crust.  I will start with the crust.  Excellent pie crust results from very cold fat and not over mixing the dough.  How do you do that?  Make the crust mixture in advance and put it in the freezer.  I actually make batches of the crust mix and freeze it in plastic bags with 1 cup of mix in each bag.  And the trick to not over-rolling your dough is to use a pastry cloth and a pin sock and NEVER wash them.  “Yuck,” you say.  Store the pastry cloth and the pin sock in a freezer bag in the freezer.  It is like having a non-stick pastry cloth and I can roll out a very thin pie crust.  Another question is about the fat to use in the pie crust mix.  Traditionally, people used lard in pie crust because it creates a much flakier crust.  However, many people use butter because it has a better flavor, but the texture of the crust is more like shortbread than pie crust and it is difficult to roll thin.

In “Recycle Those Pumpkins,” I give instructions to bake-off your Jack-O-Lanterns.  You can use the same technique to bake off any type of squash, and store it in the same way.  I use the frozen puree in soups, casseroles, and custards.  The reason I like to use a combination of pumpkin and butternut squash for my pie custard is that the butternut adds a beautiful color to the finished product.  Also, if you are using Jack-o-lantern pumpkin instead of pie pumpkin, it will improve the flavor.  What is the difference between a pie pumpkin and a jack-o-lantern pumpkin?  J-O-L pumpkin seeds are chosen for hardiness and size.  Everyone wants a nice big pumpkin to carve, and one that won’t go soft and moldy in a day.  Pie pumpkins do not store as well because they have a higher sugar content, softer flesh, and a softer outer shell.  The nice thing about pie pumpkins is that they are available at local farmer’s markets right now, along with other great fall veggies.

Elements of the perfect pumpkin pie:

Pie Crust Mix Recipe:

In a large bowl, mix together:

  • 6 Cups All-Purpose flour
  • 1 Tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

Cut in 1 pound of fat (lard, butter, shortening (not really recommended), or some combination of two or three) at room temperature until it makes pebbles.  Store in the freezer until ready to use.

Once the crust mix is frozen, you can use it.  For one crust pies, use 1 Cup of mix and add 3 Tablespoons of ice water.  Stir just until it all comes together.  For two crust pies, use 2 cups of the mix with 1/3 Cup ice water.

To roll out a pie crust, lightly flour a pastry cloth and a pin sleeve.  Make a ball out of the dough and squash it flat with your hand.  Roll the dough into a circle.  To transfer to the pie plat, fold it in quarters and slip the pie plate under the pie crust, then unfold it.  Give the crust a lot of slack and gently push it into the bottom edges of the pan.  If you tear it, just take some dough from the excess around the edges and patch it.  No one can see the bottom of the pie.  Just make sure to seal it up so the filling doesn’t leak through.

Pumpkin Custard

  • 11/2 Cups fresh pumpkin puree (if frozen defrost it first)
  • 1 1/2 Cups fresh butternut squash puree (if frozen defrost it first)
  • 3/4 C sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 eggs beaten
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  1. Preheat the oven to 400° F (200° C) and cover a baking sheet with foil.  Place the unfilled pie crust on the baking sheet and set aside.
  2. In a sauce pan with high sides, mix the pumpkin and butternut squash purees.  Put this over a medium-high heat. and cook for about 20-25 minutes, stirring frequently, until most of the water has cooked off of the puree.  Do not rush this step, as too much water in the puree will affect the overall consistency and flavor of the custard.
  3. In a bowl, beat the eggs.  Add the milk and cream and beat together.
  4. Once the puree has gotten really thick, remove it from the heat and stir in the dry ingredients.  Make sure they are well combined.
  5. Add the egg-milk mixture and stir until it is all incorporated.
  6. Fill (but do not overfill) the pie crust.  If there is extra custard, you can bake it in a greased ramekin.
  7. Bake for 40 – 50 minutes, or until set.  Check the pie after 30 minutes.  If the crust is getting too brown, cover the edges only with foil.

This custard also makes great ice-cream.

Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for your continued support on this blog!

Who Grew Your Food: Mike Wilk

carranza-memorialIf I say Tabernacle, New Jersey to people who are not from Tabernacle, New Jersey, they might know the town for one of two reasons: a) the ghost of pilot Emilio Carranza, the “Mexican Lindbergh,” who crashed there about 90 years ago, or b) it’s where the Jersey Devil lives. If you drive far enough down Carranza Road (it’s paved now, by the way), you will come to the monument in memory of Captain Carranza in the middle of the pines. But Tabernacle is more than haunted history and folklore. There are farms there, wonderful farms, producing a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and lamb.

Lamb? Well, yes. Those loin chops come from an animal, and the animal has to be raised somewhere. Last week I had the opportunity to meet a farmer, Mike Wilk, and tour where these lambs are raised. Mike scored points by having me to the farm because while he never met me, he was willing to give me a tour. This let me know that he was going to be very transparent about his practices. This isn’t to say that a farmer who will not give you a tour is being purposefully opaque. Some farmers are cautious about visitors because they fear people bringing in bugs or germs that may have a negative impact on herd health.

The morning was a typical hot, humid New Jersey July morning – it was already in the 80’s at 8:00 am. You can discern a lot about a farm by the way it smells and one side effect of heat and humidity is an amplification of smells. Wilk Farm smells the way a farm should: like clean animals. If this were a scratch-n-sniff blog (are they coming soon?), I could add a dirty animal smell and a clean animal smell so you would be able to tell the difference.  If you have the opportunity to visit the farm where your food is produced, you quickly leanr to smell the difference.

We started out chatting in the shade near the house, with Mike pointing out things he needed to repair. I was laughing on the inside because I do this at my house, an old, always a work-in-progress place, a kind of apology to the new visitor that it isn’t some pristine dwelling. But most of the farmers I know are like this – there is always something else that needs to be fixed, improved, expanded, etc. Despite his pointing out the flaws, what I saw was a beautiful 25-acre piece of land, divided into pastures, with contented sheep grazing.

The sheep are Katadhins, a breed developed through selective breeding (much like dog breeders do, in search of superior traits) in Maine from African Hair Sheep imported from St. Croix that were bred with Suffolk and Hampshire among others. The traits the breeder was looking for in the lambs were lean, healthy animals that did not require shearing. Sheep with wool (like a Suffolk) require shearing. Sheep with hair naturally shed, like a dog, and do not require shearing. After a few generations, the breeder had very hearty animals. They are heat-tolerant and naturally disease resistant because of the St. Croix origins of the African Hair Sheep. Since they were bred in Maine, they also developed thick winter coats to help shield them from the cold.

What does this mean for Mike Wilk? It means they are fairly low maintenance. But low maintenance is in the eye of the beholder. Mike inspects every animal daily, looking for issues such as hooves that need to be trimmed (they grow like finger nails), or signs of anemia. Anemia is a signal that the animal has worms, and he will selectively treat that one animal that gets worms. He told me that seeing signs of worms right away and treating them right away keeps this from becoming a problem in the flock.

The lambs are born on the farm and the only time they spend in confinement is a day or two immediately after they are born to ensure bonding with the mom. They stay on this farm and graze the pasture for about 9 months, which is when they are ready to go to market. The animals always have access to clean water and shade. In the winter, they have a sheltered area that they can always access. What do they eat when there is snow on the ground? Mike puts out grass bales that he gets from a favorite producer because of the high quality of the grasses. He said that 20 big bales gets him through the winter. When I saw what was in his barn, I was surprised because it did not have that mold-must smell of old hay bales that I was expecting.

The lambs are processed by a family shop, Nello’s, in Nazareth, PA. The proprietor is a real, old-fashioned butcher who processes meat from “start to finish,” as opposed to some “butcher shops” that are purchasing cryo-vac’ed meat and cutting it into sale-able portions, which is a story for another day.

DSC_5494The good news for you, if you live in South Jersey, is that you can purchase Mike’s very high-quality, super-humanely raised lamb at the Collingswood Farmer’s Market. If you are interested in whole animals, you can contact Mike through his website, wilkfarm.com.

New to cooking with lamb?  Never made anything but lamb chops?  Get some ground lamb and try some “Gyro Burgers”!

Gyro Burgers

  • 1 lb. ground lamb
  • 2 T finely chopped onion
  • 2 t minced garlic
  • 1 t minced fresh oregano
  • 1 t minced fresh marjoram
  • 1 t minced fresh rosemary
  • 1 t minced fresh thyme
  • 1 t salt
  • 1/2 t black pepper

Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly.  Divide meat into 4 and form into patties.  Grill to desired doneness.  Serve with cucumbers and yogurt.

Who Grew Your Food: Specca Farm

There is this farm stand on Rt. 206, on the Southbound side and anyone who lives south of the Columbus Market, or uses Rt. 206 to and from the shore, know it: The Corn Stop.  It has been there as long as I can remember. Last weekend, I was teaching a class and needed some peaches for a recipe I was making, so I went there so I could at least get something local.  The woman behind the counter was wearing a Specca Farm shirt so asked where the farm was and when she told me, I remembered why I knew the name.  Many years ago, I took my children strawberry picking there.  They are located just outside of Mt. Holly, NJ and grow very fine produce.

Later in the week, I had the opportunity to talk to Lisa Specca about the farm.  Her husband’s grandfather, Romeo Specca came from Italy after World War I and started work in this country as a gardener.  After some time, he was able to purchase some land in Philadelphia (where Franklin Mills Mall is today!) and begin his farming career.  In 1958, when his property was purchased to make way for the great new North-South Interstate 95, he purchased land in Burlington County, New Jersey, and founded the Specca Farm we know today.  His son David continued the farm and passed it on to his son, David (that’s David II), who runs the farm with his wife Lisa and their children, David (that’s III) and Steven.

The farm began as many in NJ, as a truck farm, taking produce into Philadelphia markets.  David I began the “U-Pick” as a side business that gained popularity over the decades.  They are not open all summer.  The crops they grow for U-Pick are not harvested all summer, so for example, right now, in July, they are closed.  In the early spring they open for a variety of greens, including Broccoli Rabe, of which they have four varieties, each with its own fan-base.  Later in the Spring they have strawberries.

They open again in late summer, mid-August, which is really when the harvest in New Jersey kicks into high gear.  Tomatoes and cucumbers are peaking, okra and green beans are plentiful.  And they stay open until Christmas allowing for the wonderful fall vegetables NJ has to offer, like cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflower that all thrive in the cooler temperatures of autumn.

The farm is a conventional grower because they are not yet able to produce enough compost and manure to use as fertilizer in their fields.  They use an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) system that includes minimal spray, and only sprays that are labeled “Next Day Harvest”.  David II’s off-farm work at the Burlington County Eco-Complex keeps him well aware of the environmental issues facing our county and holds land stewardship as a high priority.

What does The Corn Stop have to do with any of this?  Well, when the previous owner retired, and the business became available, the Speccas decided to give retail a try.  Lisa is excited about the new opportunity.  The Corn Stop is not selling exclusively Specca Farm produce, but produce from a variety of sources in order to provide more variety in what they have to offer.  If it can be grown locally, and is in season right now, The Corn Stop has it.

If you want more information about the U-Pick, you can check out Specca Farms on Facebook.  Not into Facebook?  You can call them at 609/267-4445 and listen to a recording of what will be available for U-Pick.