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.

Living La Vita Locale 5/30: Salad greens

What’s fresh at the market this week? Salad greens, kale, collards, and spinach. If you are new to eating seasonally, treasure these greens now, because once high summer hits, the baby greens and cool weather lettuce are done. Granted their place is taken with other greens and lettuces, but these sweet greens of spring and early summer are truly delightful.

Salads are great, and dressing is really easy to make, like Basil Vinegrette, but how about something that elevates these greens to main dish status?

Asian Burgers with Greens

1 lb. ground beef (100% pastured is best), preferably 85% lean

¼ C Mirin

¼ C soy sauce

2 T rice wine vinegar

1 t brown sugar

½ t black pepper

1 clove of garlic, crushed and finely minced

½” piece of ginger, grated

Mix all of these ingredients thoroughly and let rest in the refrigerator for at least three hours, or overnight.

In a small food processor, or single-serve smoothie blender combine the following:

½ C olive oil

¼ rice wine vinegar

2 T soy sauce

1 t sugar

½” piece of ginger, finely grated

1 medium carrot, finely chopped

Blend until smooth. Open the container and taste the dressing. Add salt and pepper to taste. This can be made up to a week in advance. Refrigerate until you are ready to use it.

Heat the grill to medium hot. Make four patties from the ground meat mixture.

Before you put the meat on the grill, mix some greens together in a bowl. You can use any combination. At the Collingswood Farmer’s Market this week, there were a variety of lettuces and spring mixes, and at the Fernbrook Farm CSA, shareholders received lettuce and kale. From my garden, I thinned my beet patch, so I have baby beet greens. You could slice bok choy. Include a variety for texture and taste. Mix the greens with the ginger dressing and let it sit until you finish grilling the meat. The dressing will wilt the greens.

Grill the burgers to the desired doneness. Plate the burger on a bed of greens.

Focus: Make Your Own Lunch

In the spirit of the 30-Month Plan, each month I will feature a single goal entry for that month. It may be something that I am working on myself, or something that I found particularly helpful in the past. This month it is one that I found helped me a lot. It isn’t going to sound very earth shattering when I share it with you, but it has made an incredible difference for me, and that is making my lunch, a hot lunch, every day.

Upfront investment: a wide-mouth thermos and a re-useable lunch container. I actually use an old metal lunch box. And when I forget it different places around the school, I get a call or a text that says, “Hey Natalie, you left your lunch box —.” Almost everyone knows that it is mine.

And yes, in some ways it is easier to bring a couple of bucks and buy lunch. But here’s the thing: I am stressed out at work. I feel like I have too much to do and too little time and my students always seem to need something. Going out of the building actually stresses me out even more, because I am freaking out the entire time I am gone, afraid that I won’t get back to school in time. Going to the cafeteria stresses me out because there is a line, and I might have to stand in it for a few minutes. If I bring something that needs to be heated, I might have to wait for the microwave to become available, and this, too, stresses me out. Time is my big issue, and what I found is that if I can reach around and pull out my lunch, undo the thermos cap and eat, I am much more relaxed.

One of the things I do on Sunday is make my lunches for the week. I usually make some sort of soup-base that can take some fermented vegetables being mixed in. It isn’t complicated and doesn’t really take very long. I portion it in pint jars.

During the week, while I am making the children’s lunches in the morning, I heat up my soup. Tempering the thermos by pouring in boiling water a few minutes before adding the soup really improves its ability to keep things hot because the thermos is already hot, it doesn’t take away any of the heat from the soup. I dump the water, add the soup and then mix in some fermented vegetables.

 

Red Lentil “Base Soup”

  • 2 T ghee, lard, coconut oil, or butter
  • 1 t ground cumin
  • 1t ground coriander
  • ½ t ground turmeric
  • 1 ½ C red lentils
  • 4 C stock
  • 4 C water

Salt to taste

  1. Heat the fat in a heavy bottom pot.
  2. Add the cumin, coriander and turmeric and fry until it becomes fragrant.
  3. Add the lentils, and swirl around until they are coated.
  4. Add the stock and water. Bring to a simmer and reduce the heat to maintain a simmer for about 1 hour, or until the lentils are cooked to bursting. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
  5. Puree with an immersion blender.
  6. Add salt and pepper to taste. If you plan to add fermented vegetables, go easy on the salt, as the vegetables carry a heavy salt component.

Traditional Soup

The first Nor’easter of the season blew up the coast yesterday, leaving behind about 1 ¼” of rain and a lot of gusty wind. Had it been cold enough, it would have been about a foot of snow that would have come down sideways. As it was, with highs earlier in the week being closer to 80 and 95% humidity, but not raining, the contrast was sharp and bone-chilling. When my husband first moved here from Minnesota, he didn’t quite understand the Mid-Atlantic winter. Now I am not saying that winter in New Jersey is as brutal as winter in Maine, or even Minnesota, but it does have it’s own characteristic not-very-charming quirks, like storms that leave behind 2 inches of rain instead of 20 inches of snow because it was 34ºF, not 30ºF. His observation was this: At least in Minnesota, the snow stays frozen on your frozen coat. Here this just soaks through everything. And how does one get warm again? Hot showers and soup. Homemade traditional soups are easy to make.

Growing up, there were three kinds of soup: condensed in a can, powered in an envelope, or frozen in “containers.” The containers are of particular importance because the soup within came from my grandmother’s kitchen. It was highly prized in the family and highly sought after. We all had our favorites: mine was mushroom-barley. I think there may have been treaties more easily negotiated than the division of soup in my grandmother’s kitchen. But all of it was null and void if someone did not return “the container.” You could stand at the stove, make your move toward the pot, but if you hadn’t returned your container, my grandmother was loath to give you another. What were these prized possessions? These tickets to soup euphoria? Sherbet containers. Yes, you read that right. Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, sherbet came in these plastic containers and my family reused them for adopting leftover soup. Tupperware was too expensive.

As my grandmother got older, I kept trying to get the soup secrets out of her. I tried and tried to replicate her soup and could never quite get it. There was always something missing. When she broke her hip and was in a rehabilitation facility, I called her to say hello and we got started talking about soup. She finally confessed parts of recipes. The underlying problem I would have was that I didn’t have her soup pot. It was this huge enamel pot that had all kinds of cracks and stains. Her recipes went something like this: “You put a soup bone in the bottom and then fill the pot with water up to the black chip that looks like an eye.” Not especially helpful in recipe replication.

Over the years, with much trial and error, I have come up with reasonable versions of my grandmother’s soups. I researched recipes, experimented and ate quite a bit of mediocre soup. In my research, I found that many of the sweet/sour soups quintessential to Eastern Europe called for lemon juice or vinegar to create the sour component. It occurred to me that a peasant in Poland would probably not have lemons, so I let go of any recipe that used lemon juice. One day, as I was pounding down some cabbage for kraut, I had an epiphany: peasants in Eastern Europe did not have lemons. But they more than likely had fermented vegetables like cabbage and beets. The resulting soups were remarkable!

 

Easy Beet Borscht (Sweet and Sour Beet Soup)

1 T fat for sauté

1 medium onion, rough chop

¼ C apple cider

2 lbs. of raw beets, peeled and cubed

1 quart of stock (any type will do)

1 C fermented beets

Salt and pepper to taste

 

Heat the fat in the bottom of the pot. Add the onion and sauté until it is translucent. Add the apple cider and scrape up any brown bits form the bottom of the pot. Add the beets the stock and let this simmer until the beets are cooked (about an hour, depending upon how small your cubes are).

Take the soup off the heat and mash the vegetables, or run an immersion (wand) blender through them. Add the fermented beets. Taste for salt and pepper.

Because the fermented beets are salty, do not add any salt until after you add the beets.

Tacos From the Freezer

One of the ways we make dinner easier is by cooking in advance and putting things in the freezer.  The title is a bit misleading, because we don’t actually eat tacos from the freezer.  We have Taco Casserole, or Taco Lasagna. It is one of those super easy meals to make in advance and put in the freezer.  When I make this I generally make three or four casseroles (yes, we have a lot of freezer space), cook one and then freeze the others. When my friend Andrea (you may remember her from other entries, like Felony Milk) shared this idea with me I was very excited.  And then I thought that I couldn’t make it because the recipe included one envelope of taco seasoning.  Did you ever read the ingredient list on that stuff?  NO way I could put that in anything I make.  As I was walking home, I thought, DUH, I’ll make my own.  Creating your own spice mixes and having them on hand is really simple and makes your cooking life that much easier.  Awhile back, I shared a recipe for Seafood Seasoning that is akin to an “Aged Inlet” since I don’t want to get into any corporate trouble.  Here’s another one.  I actually mix this up by the pint, because we use is frequently.  In addition to seasoning meat for tacos, it is great mixed with yogurt or sour cream for dip.

Taco Seasoning

In a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, put the following ingredients:

  • 2 T chile powder (we use Ancho Chili Powder)
  • 2 t garlic powder
  • 1 T onion powder
  • 2 t red pepper flakes (more or less– adjust to how hot you like things)
  • 2 t oregano
  • 2 t paprika
  • 3 t cumin
  • 2t salt
  • 2 t black pepper

Put the lid on and shake to blend.  I use about 2 tablespoons per pound of meat.  If you prefer this to be more like commercial seasoning, you should crumble the oregano very fine.

Purchasing spices in bulk really saves a lot of money.  Check out Frontier Co-op and Penzey Spices to read up and get informed.  Both of these sites are stores, so they want you to buy, but they also both have a lot of information.

Now, Taco Casserole

For each casserole:

  • 1 package of corn tortillas
  • 1 pint jar of Salsa
  • 1/2 lb. Colby cheese, shredded (1/2 C reserved)
  • 1/2 lb. Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (1/2 C reserved)
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • 1 lb. ground meat (we generally use beef, but any ground meat will work)
  • 2 -3 T taco seasoning mix (above), divided in half
  1. In a large skillet, heat about 1T of fat — just enough to brown the garlic and onions.  Saute the garlic and onions until golden brown.  Add 1/2 of the taco seasoning and stir around until it smells like tacos.
  2. Add the ground meat.  stir frequently to break up the chunks.  The meat should be in little pieces for this.
  3. Cook until the meat is all brown and most of the liquid has evaporated.  Add the rest of the taco seasoning and stir to mix thoroughly.
  4. While the meat is browning, oil the bottom of your casserole dish.  Put in a layer of tortillas to cover the bottom.  They will overlap and there will be some “bare spots.”
  5. Spoon in enough meat mixture to cover the bottom of the pan in a thin layer.  Smooth on some salsa and then a layer of each of the cheese.  Repeat the layering, ending with tortillas.  Cover with foil.
  6. If you are freezing it, put the reserved cheeses in a freezer bag and cover the casserole with foil.
  7. To bake: put the cheese on the counter to defrost. Put the cold casserole in a cold oven.  Turn the oven on to 350F and back for 45 minutes.  Remove the foil cover and add the cheese.  Put it back in the oven for 15 minutes.
  8. Let stand about 5 minutes before serving.

I get foil pans and make this casserole in the disposable pans.  I understand that this isn’t the most ecologically sound thing to do, but it makes clean-up fast and easy.  And let’s face it, part of why we eat out or get take-out or delivery is not only do we not feel like cooking, we don’t feel like cleaning up, either!