Monthly Archives: June 2011

pest or food: a snail story

We are living in a state of food excess on the farm, so much so that anything not being intentionally grown is destined for the compost pile. I have pulled a countless amount of edible weeds from the ground, leaving them to wilt and die in the path. We have probably gotten rid of enough lamb’s quarters to have as a significant portion of every meal for the past four weeks. Yesterday, I was weeding a bed of beets and uprooted two of the largest tomatillo plants currently on the farm. They were removed because that bed was for beets, not tomatillos. All of this unwanted biomass ends up getting turned into compost, but I really wanted to do something about it, however small. So, I ate some snails.

My progress has been discussed a bit here and there on the blog, but a quick recap: After collecting all of the snails, I had them on a diet of lettuce for about four days. I then switched their food source to cilantro, rosemary, Mexican tarragon (another farm “weed”), and leaves from a lemon tree to finish off their flavor for several days. Then, I cleaned them all and put them in a wooden box with a bowl of water for three days, changing the water and cleaning the box each day. Finally, this past Friday we cooked them.

After boiling the snails for five minutes, I pulled the meat out of the shell (a crazy, crazy sight) and removed a cartilaginous part that felt even less fun to eat than the snail slimefest. I heated up the wok, tossed in a lot of farm-grown garlic, onion, and cilantro, and finally added the snail meat. Justin had made tortillas, and snail tacos were served with a squeeze of lime juice, some fresh onion, and more cilantro.

I deem this project a success. Despite the slime factor of the snail meat, the flavor of the meal was pretty delicious and the people who ate the tacos are still alive. Also, I killed about 80 snails in the process and their deaths went towards feeding me, three others, and eventually the farm dog.

A few days later, I was reading Gary Paul Nabhan’s Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods, which is a pretty interesting counterpart to Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. While both are accounts of  local eating, Kingsolver moved her family away from Arizona for her project while Nabhan chose to embrace the local foods of his Arizona foodshed. If the O’odham Indians survived in and around Flagstaff, Arizona for centuries, Nabhan posits, surely the foodshed provides food worth understanding and integrating into one’s diet.

Anyway, he writes about the gathering and roasting some hornworms, and then seeing many of the worms in the beds of a small farm. He writes: “Should I think of them as part of the harvest or as a pest? I realized that most statistics defined agriculture’s productivity far too narrowly, merely measuring the yield of intentionally sown crops in a field, ignoring or even discouraging the rest of life that clusters there.” The farmers and I definitely recognize the tendency for more and more wildlife to find their way to the farm and become part of the micro-ecosystems of the individual beds, but efforts are still made to quell any population of weed or bug that is not being grown intentionally.

My snail experiment worked to alter slightly how I think about snails when I see them munching on the cabbage and beet greens–as an organism that is just trying to survive, and one that can provide sustenance as well.

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chicken harvest

There was a period of about 18 months when I was a vegetarian, with some months stricter than others. There was an absolutely ridiculous time when I ate meat in general but the only pork I consumed was prosciutto imported from Italy, “because they know how to treat their pigs,” I reasoned. Now, I accept that I am going to eat meat because it is delicious and nutritious, but I try to be mindful about the source of my meat.

Mano Farm is on the same property as Funny Farms, a small farm that raises pastured chickens. Quin and Justin trade vegetables for a chicken every other week, and they are truly delicious. Seizing the opportunity of this proximity to a clean, sustainable, humane chicken farm, I asked one of the farm’s owners, Paul, if I could be involved with the harvest. On Wednesday morning, I walked down to the front of the property and began my education about chicken processing.

First, we went to the pasture where the chickens were roaming around these Chicken Tractors modeled after the Joel Salatin pastured chicken practices. (Salatin is featured in Food, Inc. and mentioned in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.) We put them in these crates to transfer to the area where the killing cones, scalder, and plucker were. After disinfecting the processing tables, knives and storage coolers, Paul started the exsanguination process.

The chickens are put head first into these cones, which have a bucket placed under them to catch the blood. I was startled at first by the amount that the chickens flopped around while bleeding out, but Paul told me that it was natural and I eventually got used to it. After they stopped moving completely, they were transferred into a scalder. The water was 140° F, hot enough to loosen the feathers from the chicken but not hot enough to start cooking the meat.

After scalding, the chickens went in the plucker (above). They spun around for about 45 seconds, and when they come out, they are nearly feather-free. At the processing table, my first job was to take out any feathers that remained in the birds, or any that were not fully removed. I felt like a chicken dermatologist ridding the skin of imperfections.

Watching the others do the more intense processing (i.e., chopping feet off, chopping heads off, gutting the birds) made me want to learn how to do it. I slowly graduated to feet removal, and I removed a few oil glands from the tail end of the bird. Apparently, leaving the oil gland on gives the chicken a funky flavor. Eventually, though, I went through the step-by-step process of removing the crop (a sac where chickens store food), loosening the trachea, cutting open the bottom, and coaxing the entire inner cavity out in one fell swoop. In the process, I learned everything I need to know about chicken anatomy. I ended up processing two chickens almost entirely by myself; I did everything except for the neck removal, which was a lot harder than I was expecting.

For lunch after this mind-blowing experience, I brought home a couple of chicken hearts, pan-seared them, and tossed them with kelp noodles, lettuce from the farm, sesame seeds, shredded carrot, and a sesame oil vinaigrette. Chicken heart is delicious, especially when it was beating just a few hours before you ate it.

Despite the fairly lax tone of this post, I am pretty sure I am still suffering from PCSD (post chicken stress disorder). It is good to know the process behind getting chicken from the farm to my belly, and it motivated me to learn how to prepare offal properly. Taking the guts out and putting them on the compost pile made me want to learn how to make sausage from fresh chicken intestine, using as much of the bird as possible. I hope that I am able to go through that process one day.

zucchini glut

I have become privy to a perennial woe of summer farming: way too much zucchini. In her chapter “Zucchini Wars,” Barbara Kingsolver describes that the only time people lock her doors in her Virginia neighborhood is during zucchini season to prevent any unwelcome “gifts” of other growers’ zucchini. Steve Sprinkel, an organic farmer, author, and friend of Quin and Justin, wrote about zucchini season in Edible Ojai, mentioning that around July, he’d be at the farmer’s market with a pile of zucchini “melting” on him: “Of course you have too much zucchini. I have too much myself. Why did I grow it? Why did I yield to the siren song of summer squash yet again? After all these years, I go Groundhog Day with the zucchini and always get the same results.”

The past three Sundays, I have harvested the zucchini for the CSA. Last week and the week before that, each share was offered 3-5 zucchini, depending on size, but this week, we asked people to take as many as humanly possible. I have a feeling that we will be giving that instruction for a few more weeks to come.

Inspired by the insane amount of zucchini we have to go through this week (three leftover from last Sunday and about 20 beauties about the size of a professional wrestlers forearm), I made zucchini latkes the other day. We were not yet in the overload of Sundays zucchini harvest so I mixed the latke batter with shredded parsnip, onion, apple, and carrot (freshly harvested, archetypal carrots, no less).

Harvest Latkes
Serves 3 hungry farmers, or 6 people

finished latkes (applesauce in the background)

3 cups shredded zucchini
2 cups shredded carrot
1 cup shredded parsnip
1/2 cup shredded onion
1/4 cup shredded apple
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons flax seeds, ground and soaked in 4 tablespoons water)
1 cup flour (any mixture of flours will suffice)
2 tablespoons curry powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Mix all of the ingredients together. If it is too watery, add more flour. Heat a skillet with some oil and shape the batter into latkes. Cook for four minutes on either side. Serve with homemade applesauce!

P.S. Zucchini processing to come: Hot-Cumin Zucchini Pickle, Zucchini Bread-and-Butter Pickle with Ginger, frozen shredded zucchini (for future zucchini bread), dehydrated zucchini (for soups and to use as chips), and zucchini in every meal.

P.P.S. When I was finishing clipping the roots and stalks off of onions for the CSA, some members were arriving to pick up their share. One member came with a friend, this lovely woman who ended up being from Sardinia, my #1 place-to-go on planet earth (yes, it beat out Iceland). She was mentioning this zucchini pizza she made, and I think I’m going to get that going at some point. Zucchini (have more than anyone needs), fresh tomato sauce (will make once tomatoes arrive), fresh mozzarella (will make once I get some raw milk), olive oil, and some fresh basil sprinkled on top after it bakes.

farm snapshot

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Just reading some Barbara Kingsolver after a not-so-long, but still tiring, day on the farm. I started this book two days ago, and I am already more than halfway through it. Kingsolver’s discussion of growing her own vegetables, raising her own fowl, making her own cheese (mozzarella!), and foraging for morels and blackberries has been a great complement to my current farming foray. It is also an inspiring read, getting me quite excited about the gardens and self-sufficient (pray tell) vegetable growing endeavors in my future.

Kingsolver’s daughter Camille is one of the book’s co-authors (Kingsolver’s husband Steven, an environmental studies professor, also contributes), providing commentary, seasonal meal plans, and recipes. With her inspiration, I made an “egg in a nest” this morning for breakfast: an egg poached in a bed of sauteed greens. With a sprinkle of salt, a couple grinds of pepper, and a hunk of Armenian flatbread, I had downed my morning fuel. Shout out to whomever was like, “Unfertilized chicken baby? Imma eat me summa dat.”

Other foods to note: candied kumquats, fresh tortillas with sauerkraut (tastes eerily like a hot dog with mustard and kraut, but maybe I just wanted it to), those pickled garlic scapes (still going strong), a gluten-free sourdough starter (almost ready!), and the best plums (and apricots) I have ever eaten.

Other foods-in-progress to note: Started the five day snail cleansing/finishing/flavoring today by throwing the 80 collected dudes in a bucket with cilantro, Mexican tarragon, leaves from a lemon tree, and rosemary. I hope they enjoy the herbs enough so that the flavors come through! Also picked some lemons today to begin the summer’s lemonadefest.

the curiosity of steingarten and snails

I just finished reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything. The book is a compendium of Steingarten’s food writing from 1988 through 1996, all previously published in Vogue. For those of you who don’t know who Jeffrey Steingarten is, here is a representative picture:

The man is something of a hero to me. He has a voracious appetite (helpful and necessary, considering his career) and a relentless commitment to any topic he takes on–blue food, fruitcake, and microwaved fish included. My Aunt Lucille bought me this book for Christmas, as well as his It Must’ve Been Something I Ate, and I have been chipping away at chapters for the past four months or so.

I admit, the idea of a food critic is kind of silly–what makes someone better at eating than anyone else? But Steingarten’s food adventures in New York, Tokyo, Memphis, Tunisia, Italy, every corner of France, and several dozen other places gave him the power to eat with discrimination, and his propensity to write about them left me with food history tidbits and recipes galore. I cannot wait to make his black mulberry granita with foraged mulberries! It is going to be in the mid-80s this week, and a refreshing frozen treat after lunch will be perfect.

In his chapter entitled “Rosemary and Moon Beans,” Steingarten provides an account of eating paella in Madrid. The paella recipe called for either twelve snails or two sprigs of rosemary. After my initial confusion, Steingarten cleared it up: when one catches snails for their paella, they feed them rosemary for a few days to purge them of any toxins and to flavor them. The snails themselves then provide enough rosemary flavor to the dish.

Now, one of Mano Farm’s biggest pest problems is snails. Snails love to nibble on all of the kale, chard, zucchini leaves, beet greens, and assorted other leaves on the farm. They also seem to love moisture, and the past week of California June gloom seems to leave a layer of dew on the plants that the snails love. In the spirit of pest control and culinary adventurousness, the farmers and I have been collecting the snails over the course of the past day or so, and we will soon begin the process of purging them and finishing them off. I have been doing a lot of research about snail preparation from weird websites like this, but I think the project is going to be a success.

Initially, I just wanted to prepare them in the traditional style with garlic and herbs, but today Justin mentioned the idea of a snail taco and I am pretty jazzed about it. Spicy snails with homemade tortillas, chopped onion, and chile verde, perhaps with some of the pickled garlic scapes that I made with Quin the other day. (The scapes are pickled with bronze fennel, lavender, fenugreek, celery seed, and dried chile. Translation? Yum.) My, oh my, what a bounty lies ahead.

P.S. For my birthday, I asked for ice cream. Quin bought me Mint Galactica Coconut Bliss and we ate it while watching another episode of Star Trek. My god was it delicious. I was skeptical about the mint-coconut combination at first, but it was pretty perfect ice cream. Dairy-free ice cream for the dairy lover.

rain, critters & food projects

It rained yesterday. The clouds hung low and thick for hours, obscuring the mountains that surround the farm in a nearly opaque fog. After helping out with my first CSA pick (salad mix, kale, collards, chard, zucchini, lemons, chamomile, fennel, white beets, onions, garlic scapes), we all retired to our respective quarters and relaxed/read/slept. I fought off sleep for a good two hours, nodding off and waking up and reading the same paragraph of The Bell Jar over and over again. I should have just listened to my body. There’s always next Sunday.

Last night, Quin and I canned homemade elderberry jam. I had harvested the elderberries with Justin a few days earlier from a tree on the property, and Quin and I spent the rainy afternoon removing the tiny berries from the branches, washing them, sorting out any subpar fruit, making the jam (4 quarts of crushed elderberries, 12 cups! sugar, 1/2 cup vinegar), and canning it. We boiled it down for longer than we were supposed to so it is super thick, but it has a molasses-y vibe that I kind of like. I had some for breakfast this morning with a gluten-free zucchini muffin made by Mano Farm’s CSA baker.

Today, while digging up roots and weeds from a bed that was full of fennel before CSA Sunday, I experienced two new farm creature phenomena. The first involved mice, and the second snail eggs.

I had just unearthed one rather stubborn fennel root when a mouse scurried out of the soil and ran off. Startled but thinking that no more mice would be birthed from the soil, I continued clearing the bed. But then two more mice scurried out, followed by a fourth and fifth. Finally, a little baby mouse that had miraculously survived my utter thrashing of the soil with the digging fork struggled out of the bed in search of its tribe. In retrospect, this mouse evacuation was pretty cute but as it was happening I couldn’t help but invoke my Haverford dorm-based fear of mice.

Now for the snail eggs. I found what looked like a clump of Israeli couscous and asked about it because I knew it wasn’t Israeli couscous. As it turns out, I had found a lump of snail eggs. Upon further research, I discovered that snail eggs are a delicacy. A French breeder named Dominique Pierru is the premier snail egg proprietor in the world, and his eggs are found in several restaurants across France, Japan, Belgium, and Australia. After the snails lay the eggs, he washes them and cans them in a brine with special sea salt and some rosemary. “It tastes like undergrowth after the rain,” he says. Um, a) what does that mean? and b) I’m not sure I want to know. (Information about snail eggs from this article.)

To change the subject to something a little more appetizing, here is a short list of some yummy things I have recently ingested, all homemade by the farmers and me with vegetables from the farm: zucchini & avocado hummus with lemon juice; parsnip, fennel, kale stir-fry with brown rice & kombu; carrot halwa. Tempura farm veggies and falafel night are up ahead. Currently revving up my fry oil engines.

baby’s first forage

Yesterday, after finishing preparation and direct seeding of two beds of New England Pie pumpkins, we went to run some errands. The finale of these errands was a peach and mulberry forage. These are the fruits of our labor:

There is a freezer on the farm large enough to store 2-3 dead mobsters, but instead it is nearly practically of foraged fruit. Smoothies, jams, compotes, and maybe some mulberry pancakes are down the road.

I think I first heard about foraging through a New York Times article, but I can’t find the original source. The article mentioned “Wildman” Steve Brill who takes people on foraging tours around the New York area. I am actually considering going on one in Prospect Park when I return home. First, I assumed they were expensive, but they are actually just a suggested donation of $20. The problem with touring Prospect Park with the Wildman is that I don’t live conveniently close to the park, so any gleaning or foraging skills I learn will be specific to an area far away from me. The next step of my life as a forager must be applying the skills learned on the farm and wherever else I pick up skills (Brill’s book, blog entries, more blog entries, and even an iPhone app) to the places where I live. Knowing how to identify edible wild plants is only half of the battle. You need to know where to look for them, and then where the best loot grows.

An internet search led me to information about wild foraging in New Jersey, but I think it is going to take my own footwork to actually glean a sizable amount of food from my New Jersey suburbs or wherever I end up.