Focus on One: August

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love the water. I grew up in New Jersey, southern New Jersey, where an escape to the beach for the day was 45 minutes away. Nowadays, with the popularity of the destination and the increase in the local population, the trip takes at least an hour, but the beautiful white sand and the smell of the salt water is worth it. I’ve also lived in Michigan, not far from Lake Michigan, and no, it is not “just like the ocean.” It is big, yes, and sunsets are amazing, and it has incredible, enormous sand dunes, but fresh water is different from salt water and the waves are smaller. It is no less awe-inspiring, just different. And I have lived in Colorado, right on a river in a canyon. Smaller, of course, and I could see the other side, but fast moving and really cold all summer. Again, a completely different experience of water. I love a day in the sun, in and out of the water, and reading a book. Focus on One for August is simply to get to the beach and read a book.

It actually takes a lot for me to sit and read a book if it has nothing to do with what I am teaching in the coming year. I have no problem reading novels I am going to teach, or criticism of works I am going to teach, or collections of essays in search of new things to teach, but pleasure reading is a problem. I have to give myself permission and then stop that voice in my head that keeps saying, “You should be re-reading King Lear.” But reading for pleasure is a different activity altogether. Sure any kind of reading is good for my brain, but reading a novel for pleasure actually reduces stress, improves memory, helps develop analytical abilities, and helps with focus so that when I am reading for work, my mind doesn’t wander.

Another benefit of a day at the beach with a book is getting out in the sun. Oh, I know the cancer risks. But don’t put on the sunscreen until about 20 minutes have passed. While sunscreen protects your skin from harmful effects of UV light, it also prevents your skin from being able to manufacture Vitamin D. The good news is that most people won’t get a sunburn in 20 minutes, the time it generally takes for the body to generate enough Vitamin D for the day. And here’s what is interesting. If you are extremely fair-skinned, it takes less time for you to produce the same amount of Vitamin D than someone who is darker skinned, therefore, 5 or 10 minutes of “unprotected” sun time may be enough. I am not saying everyone should ditch the sunscreen. I am saying that a short amount of time in the sun will increase the amount of Vitamin D your body can produce.

Before the school year starts up, and everything gets crazy again, take a day, or an afternoon, or even an evening, and get out to a relaxing spot with a book.

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.

Living La Vita Locale 7/12: Peaches

Ok, FINE! I’ll give Georgia THEIR peaches, because if you live in Georgia, and can get those gems tree-ripened, they are wonderful.  But in mid-July in New Jersey? It is all about the Jersey peach, especially white peaches that squirt juice all over when you bite them.  We like to pick peaches at the same orchard where we pick our apples, Strawberry Hill.  We bring home about a bushel of peaches and I can some, and lacto-ferment some, and dry some, and make fruit leather out of some.  And yes, we eat the rest of them: peach cobbler, yogurt with peaches, or even just a plain peach as a snack.  While I will buy “bump-and-dent” tomatoes to can into sauce (because sometimes I do not get enough tomatoes from my garden even with what is supplemented by the CSA share), I will not skimp on peaches.   They must be perfect specimens and perfectly ripe.

Peaches are number two on the list of the “Dirty Dozen” foods as defined by the Environmental Working Group.  Because they are fuzzy, peach skins retain much of the topical fungicides and pesticides that farmers spray on the fruit.  And because they are fuzzy, it is nearly impossible to get all of the chemicals washed off of the fruit.  And it is very difficult to grow a soft fruit that is susceptible to a plethora of pests and fungi without the use of chemicals.  That is why organic peaches are hard to come by. Additionally, with peaches being publicized as part of the “Dirty Dozen” more people are choosing organic over conventional.  This is why organic peaches are so expensive.

Of course I went in search of a local organic orchard!  Did I find one?  Yes.  But they did not grown peaches.  As a matter of fact, I could not find one local organic peach.  Not one.  The organic orchard I found only grew organic apples — the soft fruit orchards were on another property they owned about a mile down the road, and were not organic.  They, like Strawberry Hill, use IPM (Integrated Pest Management) system that minimizes the use of chemicals.  They do not use antibiotics (Yes! There are some pesticides that are antibiotics!), they release lady bugs and parasitic wasps to manage insect pests, but they do have to spray sometimes. Usually fungicide, and usually when it has been very wet.  My advice is to call the orchard and ask questions.  Most farmers and orchardists will be very happy to talk to you — they will be surprised that you are interested.  So while Strawberry Hill is a conventional orchard, I still buy fruit there because I feel that their practices are environmentally sound.

The absolute easiest thing to do with peaches is to lacto-ferment them.  Lacto-fermenting fruit can be a little tricky because the ferment can go “boozy” very quickly.  This is one I check about every 12 hours.  As soon as you feel a little effervescence on your tongue, it is time for this to go into the fridge!

Lacto-Fermented Peaches

2-3 ripe peaches, peeled and cut into chunks catching as much juice as possible

1/2 C fresh berries (blackberries and blueberries are usually coming in around the same time as the peaches)

1/4 C cilantro leaves

1 T salt

In a scrupulously clean quart jar, combine all of the ingredients.  Secure the lid and shake the jar until all of the ingredients are combined and the peaches and berries are broken up.  Leave this on your counter for 1-2 days, depending on the temperature of your kitchen.  This needs to be stored in the refrigerator, below 42° F.

This is delicious as is, or mixed with fresh chopped tomatoes and sweet onions as a salsa, spooned over grilled fish or chicken, or blended with a little balsamic vinegar and olive oil for salad dressing.

Not a fan of cilantro? Try some basil instead.  Don’t have blackberries?  Use strawberries.  This is just as wonderful without the berries.  If you want an amazing topping for ice-cream, leave out the herbs!  Have fun experimenting.  If you come up with a new combination, please share it in the Comments!

Who Grew Your Food?

Among the perks of going to a farmer’s market is actually getting to speak to the person who grew your food. I talk about this all of the time in different ways. In class, when I am teaching the Politics of Food unit, we discuss the concept of “eating lower on the commodity chain;” in my Lacto-Fermentation classes, I talk about using fresh ingredients, about knowing when items were harvested; with my peers and I talk about food safety and how knowing and respecting the people who are producing our food will make it safer. My neighbor asked how I became so knowledgeable about food production – I am an ENGLISH teacher, not a Biology teacher, nor Environmental Science teacher, nor a Horticulture teacher. I learned by asking questions of the farmers who produce my food. Sometimes I take this for granted – that I have this direct access, but you don’t have to belong to a CSA or buy a half a steer once a year to have this kind of contact. If you choose to buy your produce at one of the many farmer’s markets that are springing up all over our area, you can ask questions of the farmers – the men and women who are on the other side of the table.

As I have said before, the farmers I know are among the smartest people with whom I am acquainted. Before they were farmers, or in addition to farming, they earned degrees in English, Neuro-science, History, Bio-chemistry, Social Work, and Education; they were college professors, lab techs, nurses, Elementary School principals, and teachers. I know only one who knew he always wanted to be a farmer. All of the others came to farming for a myriad of reasons, none of which is any less fascinating than the rest.

This week at the Collingswood Farmer’s Market, I met my friend Laura who introduced me to her farmer friends, Barry and Carol Savoie from Savoie Organic Farm in Williamstown, NJ. On Saturday, among other produce, the Savoies had beautiful garlic, and I had the opportunity to “talk garlic” with Barry. The variety this week was White German Extra Hardy, a variety I haven’t had since my visit to Ecosophy Farm in Woodward, PA. Due to the massive individual cloves, this garlic is especially good to roast because it can stay on the heat longer without drying out which allows for the flavors to really develop. You know how Silver Queen corn gets really sweet when you roast it?  This garlic is the Silver Queen of garlic.

I learned that the Savoies both wandered a bit, but came back to New Jersey to settle down on land owned by Carol’s father. They went through the arduous process of attaining Organic certification, which is quite a task for any farm, but especially a small farm. For Barry, this isn’t just about certification and the Organic moniker – he believes in treating his land well in order to be a good steward of the environment. While they do not have on-farm sales, these busy farmers have three different CSA options, and make produce available at three markets: Collingswood, Headhouse in Philadelphia, and Ocean City.

Roasted Garlic

If we are planning a meal that is going to be on the grill for a while, we will plan to roast some garlic to have on hand.  It keeps for about two weeks in the fridge, although we generally use it up much faster that that.

  1. Brush the head of garlic to remove any dirt that might be clinging to it.  DO NOT WASH IT!
  2. Wrap the entire head in foil.
  3. Place the wrapped head of garlic on the back of the grill as soon as you can. If you use a charcoal grill, put it on when you put the grill grates on and just leave it there, even after you are done grilling, with the lid down, until your coals have burned down.  If you use a gas grill, the garlic should be on the heat for at least an hour (medium heat), but more is better.  Just be sure the foil packet is not directly over the flames.

To use it, just squeeze out a clove and spread it on bruschetta, or mash it and add it to salad dressing, or mix it with butter to spread on that roasted Silver Queen corn!