Author Archive | Laura Silverman

kitartwhey

The Kitchen Artist’s Whey

A second life for a by-product

kitartwhey

PHOTOGRAPHED BY LAURA SILVERMAN

If, as editor and essayist Clifton Fadiman once mused, cheese is “milk’s leap toward immortality,” what then of the watery yellow substance left behind? Aside from recalling that Miss Muffet ate it along with her curds, most people have only the vaguest notion of whey, beyond its protein powder form which is routinely added to health shakes.

Whey is the liquid resulting from milk that has been curdled to make cheese or yogurt; it serves as an abundant by-product with which dairy purveyors must contend, so abundant that there has been talk in the past of processing whey into a biofuel. In a world currently embracing sustainable practices and nose-to-tail eating, it’s only fitting that whey should take a turn in the limelight.

The whey from hard cheese and yogurt production is sweet, but the kind produced from making soft cheese like ricotta is more acidic and can cause an overgrowth of algae that is potentially detrimental to aquatic ecosystems if it is dumped into our waterways. So lots of whey is sold, or sometimes given, to animal farmers. The pigs at Raven & Boar in East Chatham are fed grains soaked in whey from local cheese producers, including Twin Maple Farm in Ghent. There is also a growing movement to educate consumers about the taste and nutritional benefits of whey. At last year’s Bitten food conference in New York City, Homa Dashtaki extolled its virtues—rich in probiotics, enzymes, protein and calcium—and vented her frustration that it still has not really caught on with the general public. Her company, White Moustache, makes delicious strained yogurt and now sells its whey, in ginger and honeylime flavors and also as a plain brine in 3.5-gallon buckets for poultry (it’s a marvelous tenderizer).

My Whey

If you make yogurt or soft cheese at home, you won’t need to buy whey. Obsessed with paneer, that soft white cheese used in Indian cooking, and deprived of Indian restaurants where I live in Sullivan County, I had to whip up my own. The process is similar to many recipes for ricotta, though true ricotta is made by curdling whey from milk that has previously been curdled (“ricotta” means “cooked twice” in Italian). When you curdle whole milk with lemon juice or vinegar, you are actually making a kind of fresh cheese that the Indians call “chhenna”: masses of cloud-like white curds that split from the whey.

The curds can be whipped by hand or in a food processor to make a smooth and creamy cheese, or they can be drained until firm—in a strainer lined with cheesecloth or in a hanging bag made from a linen kitchen towel—and you have paneer. More importantly, for the purposes of this piece, you are left with plenty of whey.

Other cultures (Persian, Eastern European) have long appreciated whey as a refreshing and healthy drink. Try it chilled, flavored with fresh lemon and lightly sweetened. Or, as it’s served at El Rey Luncheonette in Manhattan, infused with fennel and tarragon simple syrup in a non-alcoholic riff on pastis, an anise-flavored aperitif. Whey is faintly milky with a wonderfully velvety mouthfeel that translates very well to cocktails, where it imparts the body and structure of egg white but with a silkier texture. This makes it a key ingredient in milk punch, a 17th-century sailors’ recipe that combines pineapple, spices, rum and other spirits into a smooth, potent and amazingly clear cocktail. Whey is also divine shaken with gin, simple syrup, lemon juice, a few drops of orange blossom water and lots of ice in a drink I call the Gin Blossom.

kitartwhey2

Whey is faintly milky with a
wonderfully velvety mouthfeel
that translates very well to cocktails.

kitartwhey3

Every Which Whey

Whey keeps in the refrigerator for weeks and has endless applications in the kitchen. An essential component in lacto-fermentation, the naturally occurring bacteria in whey help produce delicious pickles and sauerkraut. A couple of tablespoons added to the water for soaking beans breaks down the enzyme inhibitors and complex sugars that can inhibit digestion. Whey can be used in place of milk or other liquids in baked goods to enhance tenderness, and it’s ideal as a base for smoothies and soups of all kinds.

At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where chef Dan Barber routinely makes magic with neglected ingredients, thinly sliced onions are slowly braised in whey until they collapse into a soft, sweet heap that’s excellent alongside roast chicken or piled onto a thick slice of grilled bread. Virtually anything braised in whey is enhanced with a smooth texture and savory undertone, including grains, meats and vegetables. Try simmering small potatoes in whey, then tossing them in butter and roasting until crisp. They crackle then melt in your mouth.

On the sweet side, whey can be combined with sugar and cooked down into a caramel sauce or combined with honey and frozen for a hauntingly delicious sorbet. Once you welcome whey into your life, you’ll be crying tears of joy over spilt milk.

RECIPES

CRISPY WHEY-BRAISED POTATOES

CHHENNA

GIN BLOSSOM

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foraginglove

Foraging

A love story

foraginglove
Writer Laura Silverman scratching the surface of the forest floor

PHOTOGRAPHED BY LAURA SILVERMAN

Foraging always came naturally to me. During my Northern California childhood, I would climb over our back fence into an empty lot, pick great misshapen lemons off a tree that grew there and eat them sprinkled with sugar. Walking home from school, my chums and I snacked on wild blackberries, chewed juicy “sour grass” (a type of wood sorrel) and sucked drops of sweet nectar from the purple flowers of a creeping vine that covered our path. I don’t recall how we learned to do this—maybe it was innate—but I do know that I made a deep connection to nature at an early age that lay dormant during the decades I lived in New York City. It wasn’t until I started exploring the Catskills in 2003 that I began to forage again.

Though it’s gaining momentum now, at a time when slow living, “authentic” experiences and environmental awareness have captured the imagination of information-saturated millennials, foraging is not new. Once upon a time, humans survived in the world by roaming widely in search of food and provisions. This ancient practice taps into something deeply primal in all of us, and when we reconnect with nature, that lizard brain stirs. But head out into the wilderness armed with nothing more than a desire to find something edible and you will be at a loss. Depending on the season, the choicest tidbits might be in plain sight or nearly impossible to discern. Unless you know the difference, the delicious can easily be confused with the deadly.

foraginglove2
Black trumpets

Digging Texts

Foraging responsibly requires a strong connection to the landscape, including how it’s affected by the weather, and knowledge of botany. A reliable reference book is essential. The first one I picked up was Euell Gibbons’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus, published in 1962 and widely considered the first word in foraging texts. The foreword, written by John McPhee, whose New Yorker profile of Gibbons from 1968 is well worth tracking down, tells the story of how Gibbons headed into the New Mexico hills to forage for food to keep his family alive when his father couldn’t find work during the Great Depression. They managed to survive for more than a month on puffball mushrooms, piñon nuts and prickly pear fruits. Gibbons went on to live off the land wherever he could and developed a rather sophisticated wild cuisine (former New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne called him “an excellent cook and a naturalist who lives by the pen”) that still holds up. With Gibbons’s book as my guide, I ventured into the mountains and forests but also into the “abandoned farmsteads, old fields, fence rows, burned-off areas, roadsides, woodlots, farm ponds, swampy areas and even vacant lots” that were designated in the text as some of the best foraging sites.

While books are a great place to pique your foraging curiosity, eventually you have to get outside. My initial forays proved both fruitful and confusing. I thought I recognized certain plants or mushrooms, but at the moment of truth I often balked at actually putting something in my mouth. This is where a flesh-and-blood mentor proves invaluable. As Gibbons himself said in a fascinating 1972 interview with Hal Smith in Playboy, “It would be extremely difficult—in a book—to teach someone to distinguish between a head of cabbage and a head of lettuce. Yet anyone who’s raised a garden or has become acquainted with supermarket produce recognizes the difference quite easily.”

Unless you know the difference,
the delicious can easily be
confused with the deadly.

foraginglove3
Wild grapes

The first guided plant walk I went on was led by Richard Mandelbaum, a practicing herbalist since 1997, who is based in Forestburgh, New York, and Brooklyn, where he is the co-founder of ArborVitae, a school of traditional herbalism. It was pouring rain that afternoon and most of our small group was kitted-out in high-performance gear. Almost at once we came upon a beautifully ruffled, bright-orange mushroom: a chicken of the woods! It’s hard to describe the thrill of that eureka moment but, for you urbanites, it’s something akin to finding money on the sidewalk or a Prada jacket in your size at half off. I have felt faint when stumbling upon a vast patch of ramps (wild leeks) and fallen to my knees in ecstasy before a flush of black trumpet mushrooms, a funnel-like mushroom that grows in clusters.

Mandelbaum’s winning combination of encyclopedic knowledge and childlike wonder was just as inspiring then as it is now, and I still regularly look to him for herbal remedies as well as plant lore. But what I remember most from that day was another member of our group, a man who, despite the torrential downpour, was roaming the forest in simple sandals and a wool sweater, rain dripping from his long beard and even longer hair. Occasionally, he would dart silently into the trees and reappear with a mushroom as though it had been calling to him. He seemed to be one with nature. This was Nathaniel Whitmore, a local herbalist and wildcrafter, and the founder and president of the Delaware Highlands Mushroom Society.

Growing up on his great-grandfather’s 100-acre farm in Damascus, Pennsylvania, Whitmore loved to wander alone through the fields and forests. He remembers his grandfather taking two mustard-smeared pieces of bread into the field in early spring to make a sandwich with young dandelion greens. As a teen, he befriended Taterbug Tyler, a local mountain man and moonshiner who introduced him to wild edibles and taught him to make tinctures, syrups and decoctions. Whitmore went on to study botany, mycology and ethnobotany, as well as Native American medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, American folk medicine and Ayurveda and now regularly offers walks and classes about botany, mushrooms and herbs.

A plant-focused omnivore, most of what Whitmore eats comes from the wild, including nuts, seeds, buds, flowers, leaves, stalks, shoots, roots, tubers, berries, fiddleheads and pollen. He attributes his good health to a diet rich in variety and from an essential connection to the earth that simply makes him feel good.

“Eating natural foods taps into something ancient, something universal, an experience that’s part of everyone’s archetypal psyche,” he explains. “Our bodies are following a trajectory set in place by our ancestors and it just feels right.” He sees the growing interest in foraging as inevitable and, without irony, gives credit to the Internet for facilitating conversation around this topic and for making plant identification more accessible.

As a full-time resident of Sullivan County, I live according to the seasons, marking the passage of time by what’s growing at local farms, in my garden and out in the wild. By the close of winter, I am checking daily for the first sign of stinging nettles, hotly anticipating the fortifying soup I will make. Summer means fermented elderflower cordial and milkweed buds in miso butter. Fall brings mushrooms— to eat and to preserve for their highly medicinal properties. I’m after that soul-satisfying connection to the earth and what Euell Gibbons called “that wild taste.” It’s in my blood.

RECIPE

Wild Mushroom Soup

wildmushroomsoup

FALL FORAGING

Fledgling foragers are advised to carry a reliable field guide, consult an experienced mentor and heed the trusted aphorism, “When in doubt, throw it out.” It’s best to eat only a small bite of wild food that is new to you as everyone responds differently and allergy or indigestion are both possibilities.… Read More

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whiskputbird

Put a Bird On It

whiskputbird
PHOTOGRAPH: LAWRENCE BRAUN, COURTESY OF EARLYBIRD COOKERY

When the average person grows weary of her desk job, she usually stands up, stretches and goes for a walk. But when Amy Miller left her New York City-based graphic design business, she headed in a completely different direction. “I was tired of sitting at a desk all the time,” she remembers, “and I had always loved to cook.” Amy had also been running a little bed-and-breakfast in Sullivan County, where she bought a weekend home in 2001. Feeding her guests from the bounty of local farms inspired her to enroll in the chef-training program at the Natural Gourmet Institute. It was a bold move and one that had a big impact on Amy as well as the many who have enjoyed the many pleasures of Early Bird Cookery in Callicoon.

What started as a private chef business in the city turned into a meal delivery service based upstate when Amy moved to her weekend place full-time in 2010. “Early Bird Cookery is all about the amazing farms in this area,” says Miller. “My clients—in the city and everywhere— really want locally grown food and I’m proud to highlight it.” In Miller’s creative hands, locally sourced ingredients are transformed into delicious dishes that emphasize fresh vegetables and sustainably raised meats. Offerings like radish tempura, crostini topped with nettle pesto and leg of lamb with a thyme-salt crust subtly allude to the ethos and sensibility of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where Miller had previously interned.

Busy city folk can sign up for weekly deliveries of prepared meals on Early Bird’s commerce-friendly website. Hudson Valley denizens can pick up her wonderful ice creams, sweetened only with local honey, at the Callicoon farmers’ market. Flavors range from elderflower to tomato-watermelon to goat cheese with maple walnut. Early Bird is known for putting on quite a spread, and Miller has her hands full catering upstate weddings from May through October. Several years ago, she also began hosting seasonal four-course dinners at venues such as Basin & Main in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. “We don’t have a proper storefront or a place where people can come find us,” explains Miller, “so these supper clubs are a chance for us to get exposure, connect with the public and dream up some fun menus.”

Last fall, Early Bird hosted nearly 100 outrageously costumed diners at a festive Day of the Dead-themed supper club that featured a local band and ornate spun-sugar skull favors. Despite this high-octane ambience, the food more than held its own. Standouts from the Mexican-themed menu included a flavorful nut-crusted guinea hen with tomatillo mole and a decadent dark chocolate tart with caramel corn ice cream. As with everything from Early Bird Cookery, it was accompanied by a full portion of local charm. —Laura Silverman

earlybirdcookery.com

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wildmushroomsoup

Wild Mushroom Soup

wildmushroomsoup
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURA SILVERMAN

(Serves 4)

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons curry powder
2 parsnips, peeled and diced
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried
2 cups bite-size chunks of fresh wild mushrooms
6 cups wild mushroom stock
½ cup wild rice
½ cup buttermilk
¼ cup heavy cream, optional
Sea salt and pepper

Combine olive oil and butter in a heavy stockpot over mediumhigh heat, then add onion, celery and garlic and cook until softened. Stir in curry powder and a pinch of salt and cook for a couple of minutes.

Add parsnips, thyme, mushrooms and stock and bring to a boil, then lower heat and gently simmer, partially covered, for about 30 minutes. Add wild rice and simmer, partially covered, for another 30 minutes.

Stir in buttermilk and cream, adding a little water if it needs thinning. Add salt and pepper to taste. Heat thoroughly and serve.

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womenEdge

Women on the Edge

The virtues of herb farms

womenEdgeLauren Giambrone of Good Fight Herb Co. sorting dried herbs

PHOTOGRAPHS BY PHIL MANSFIELD

In the preface to Euell Gibbons’s seminal 1966 book, Stalking the Healthful Herbs, Elizabeth C. Hall, then the associate curator of education at the New York Botanical Garden, wrote: “In all parts of the world, native plants exist that possess or have been thought to possess virtues that appeal to the cook, the medicine man, and the witch doctor. Despite the fact that most wild herbs are of small economic importance in our modern civilization, nevertheless, they supply pleasure to an increasing number of people who study these plants and their fascinating lore.”

The book that follows sets out to reveal many benefits beyond mere pleasure. Gibbons believes wild herbs must be learned, hunted, picked, gathered, smelled, tasted and used for food and medicine wherever possible. Though his obsession might have been remarkable at the time, he freely admits to be following in the footsteps of the ancients. Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine are among countless indigenous systems in which plants have long played a central role in maintaining health.

Fifty years have gone by since the publication of Gibbons’s book and we find ourselves in a time when the healing power of plants is once again in the spotlight. Eating local and organic is one way we let food be our medicine. Many people have become disenchanted with Western medicine and are seeking out natural, plant-based remedies. The prevalence of farmers’ markets and CSAs are creating a customer base for small growers who want to focus on more specialized and fragile crops. So it’s really no surprise that there are an increasing number of herb growers and healers (often one and the same) bringing herbs, both cultivated and wild, to a receptive audience in the Hudson Valley/Catskills region.

Some of the four herb farmers featured below grew up loving plants and some were drawn to herbs because of health issues, but they all express a deep respect for the land and an almost mystical connection to the many healing varieties they grow on it. Like all farming, cultivating herbs is laborious and time consuming. The rewards, while immense and often life changing, are rarely bankable, though, as demand increases, that may evolve.

womenEdge2Stinging nettles bagged and waiting

REMEDY FARM

When the medicine Jordan Schmidt, a vegetable farmer, was offered for her chronic asthma, allergies and digestive issues failed to provide a cure, she turned to herbs. Schmidt went back to school in 2014 to get certified as a nutritional therapist, a technique used to evaluate personal health history, locate core imbalances and provide guidelines for a whole food and herbal diet. Schmidt continues to grow the herbs that she integrates into her practice. “I see a lot of people who are not finding the answers they need in our existing medical system and are looking for more holistic, land-based options,” she says.

Jordan’s two-acre plot is part of Chaseholm Farm, a dairy operation in Pine Plains that she co-manages with her life partner. The herbs she grows—“a hybrid between wild and domesticated foods”—are classic culinary varieties, like rosemary, dill and thyme, and those more closely associated with traditional herbal medicine, like yarrow, comfrey and feverfew. Schmidt finds a lot of crossover between medicinal and culinary herbs. “Many of the culinary herbs are highly medicinal and I suspect that’s why they have always been integrated into daily food,” she explains. She encourages her nutritional therapy clients to eat more herbs as part of their regular diet. Her line of dried culinary herbs packaged in jars is for sale at the farm store and at several other local venues. Among her diverse clientele, she also counts a number of herbalists and practitioners of Chinese acupuncture who believe that sourcing plants locally enhances their medicinal value. Those that are dried immediately after harvesting are more potent and of higher quality. Schmidt is also part of a growers’ co-op experimenting with cultivating Chinese medicinal herbs in the New York area.

womenEdge3Claudia Abbot-Barish of The Herbal Acre

HONEYBEE HERBS

Kelley Edkins has had a long love affair with plants, but it’s the bees that really stole her heart. After apprenticing with an herbalist more than 20 years ago, she learned to identify and study “weeds”— what Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to as plants “whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” She put this knowledge to use when creating gardens for clients in Sullivan County, unearthing old heirlooms and introducing native plants and endangered species to support the dwindling honeybee population. A master gardener with extensive knowledge of sustainable permaculture, she now specializes in woodland gardens filled with diverse plants, many of which—Solomon’s seal, goldthread, St. John’s wort, borage—are healing herbs.

“I’m the farmer,” says Edkins, “but the bees are my teachers.” She maintains two hives on her 10-acre property, Honeybee Herbs in the Catskills, and monitors three others in the wild. It was through careful observation of which plants the bees were pollinating that she was inspired to blend certain herbs for her teas. “The honeybees are really my formulators,” she explains. “I follow the combinations they put together.” In spring, this might mean lilac, coltsfoot, dandelion and nettle; in summer, anise hyssop, mint, sage and lemon balm. The teas often have specific healing benefits, but Kelley does not prescribe to her customers. Instead she simply describes the properties and characteristics of the individual teas and lets people decide what they need. “I feel that people are ready for new modalities,” she says, “especially the open-minded seekers.” Her customers include men and women of all ages, many of whom feel abandoned by the standard medical system.

In addition to herbal teas, Kelley makes beauty products. For her soothing balms, infused oils and healing salves, she uses virgin beeswax, honey and herbs, plus organic coconut, jojoba and sunflower oils. She also sells pure propolis, the potent botanical resin that bees use to seal their hives, which is anti-inflammatory and very healing. Only occasionally does she harvest and sell honey from the bees, and only if there is a surplus after they have survived the winter. Her products are available at Pepacton Natural Foods and the farmers’ market in Roscoe; at Main Street Farm in Livingston Manor; and from her online shop, which features a photo of her covered with bees, clearly in a state of rapture.

GOOD FIGHT HERB CO.

Lauren Giambrone discovered herbal medicine on a quest to heal herself. After working two full-time jobs in New York City. “The candle had burned at both ends,” she remembers, “and I collapsed in the middle.” Depleted and frequently sick, Lauren knew her life was unsustainable. Intuition told her that a trip to the doctor was not the right solution. Instead, she sought answers at the health food store, looking for ways to build her immunity.

Around that time, she discovered the Rock Dove Collective, a community health exchange connecting people, regardless of their financial situation, to unconventional wellness offerings and exceptional health practitioners. Giambrone joined the collective and met an herbalist on their roster. Shortly thereafter, she applied to the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine and was admitted to their apprenticeship program.… Read More

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pozole

Crisis Eating

Finding a meal to satisfy both conscience and desire

pozole

PHOTOGRAPHED BY LAURA SILVERMAN

By now, most people have read at least something about the ill effects of factory farming on the quality of our meat. And it’s starting to sink in that the health of our planet, also in jeopardy, is inextricably linked to what’s on our plates. Like cows chewing their cud, many thoughtful eaters have ruminated over which diet is the best one, only to discover that there is no definitive answer.

On top of all the scientific information available to us, we must each consider a host of deeply personal issues—religious, cultural, medical and epicurean. Though the question of what to eat should almost certainly be decided on a case-by case basis, there are some overarching truths that cannot be disputed. There is a notable quote from Brian Awehali, founder and editor of the now-defunct LiP: Informed Revolt, an award-winning alternative magazine: “Everything in this world eats something else to survive, and that something else, whether running on blood or chlorophyll, would always rather continue to live rather than become sustenance for another.

No animal wants to be penned up and milked or caged and harvested, and you’ve never seen plants growing in regimented lines of their own accord.” Eating meat obviously involves killing, but what about eating vegetables? Scientists at the Institute for Applied Physics at the University of Bonn in Germany have documented that cucumbers cry out when they are sick and lettuces moan when their leaves are cut. In determining where to dine on the spectrum from vegan to omnivore, we’d do well to avoid an intractable moral high ground that is becoming increasingly hard to defend.

In determining where
to dine on the spectrum
from vegan to omnivore,
we’d do well to avoid an
intractable moral
high ground that is
becoming increasingly
hard to defend.

My own dietary equation takes into account not only Michael Pollan’s now-famous edict—“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”—but also Dan Barber’s recent book about the intersection of good farming and good food. In The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, Barber explores our transition away from the “first plate,” at the center of which is a hunk of corn-fed meat, to a “second plate” containing a more thoughtful but still-problematic farm-to-table presentation of a smaller, grass-fed steak surrounded by a modest helping of vegetables “that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow.” His proposed solution is the “third plate,” one on which the steak is distinctly secondary, overshadowed by sustainable vegetables and grains like rye, barley, buckwheat and millet that promote ecological balance.

This last paradigm brings to mind the foods of peasants and indigenous cultures, where meat is most often a supporting player. From collards cooked with a meaty ham hock to tamales stuffed with morsels of spicy beef to pasta tossed with anchovies, there is a world of delicious inspiration out there that modestly utilizes animal protein.

An economic imperative helped shape these cuisines, but an environmental one can be equally motivating. And learning to eat this way brings about a much more profound lifestyle change than a well-intentioned but superficial measure like Meatless Mondays. There is a real shift that happens when you start cooking with meat as a seasoning and soon realize there is no sense of deprivation.

Some of my favorite winter meals are incredibly hearty stews and casseroles based on beans, grains and vegetables with just an accent of meat. Many of the recipes in the wonderful Japanese Hot Pots: Comforting One-Pot Meals by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat (Ten Speed Press, 2009) are deeply satisfying, though seafood and meat take a back seat to greens, roots, noodles and mushrooms. I love to make pozole, the Mexican hominy stew, with a broth of pork bones and a garnish of crispy chicken skin. On cold mornings, nothing is better than a steaming bowl of congee, long-simmered rice topped with shredded chicken or a soft-boiled egg. And a dinner party favorite is a giant pumpkin stuffed with a ragout of vegetables, cheese and slivers of ham and roasted whole in the oven. In all these dishes, just a small quantity of meat adds a richly savory dimension. This way of eating is a revelation.

RECIPES

Pozole

Stuffed & Roasted Winter Squash

Congee

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gleaning

Gleaning

Scavenging in a world of plenty

gleaning
The Gleaners (Des glaneuses), 1857, Jean-François Millet
in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris

ILLUSTRATIONS BY LUCY ENGELMAN

gleaning2

On a sultry July morning, John King, owner of Royal Acres Farm in Middletown, has just finished loading 1,000 pounds of bok choy from his fields onto a refrigerated box truck. The meticulously grown greens are not going to any of his 100 CSA customers, nor are they being driven to a local farmers market—the two main sales outlets for his crops. That truck parked in his driveway is known as the Gleanmobile and at the wheel is Stiles Najac, food security coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension Orange County.

“The markets have been really slow this year and the weather’s unpredictable,” King says about his surplus of produce. “It doesn’t help us financially to donate it, but it helps our karma to do something for the community.”

Doing something for the community is at the root of gleaning, an ancient practice mentioned in both the Torah and the Bible. These sacred texts dictate that farmers should refrain from harvesting every corner of their fields and picking every grape on their vines, so that “the poor and the alien” might avail themselves of the leavings. In Jean-François Millet’s classic 1857 oil painting, The Gleaners (Des glaneuses), three women are depicted collecting the few remaining stalks of wheat in a sprawling field. It’s a powerful rendition of the brutal reality of peasant life in rural 19th-century France.

Eventually, the tradition of gleaning was replaced by government systems of welfare, but there’s a growing movement in this country to revive and modernize gleaning as a means of addressing chronic food waste and food insecurity. More often now it’s referred to as “food rescue.”

Eventually, the tradition of gleaning
was replaced by a more institutionalized system
of welfare, but there’s a growing movement
in this country to revive and modernize it
as a means of addressing
chronic food waste
and food insecurity.

gleaning3

WASTE NOT

According to a USDA study released last year, “In the United States, 31 percent (133 billion pounds) of the 430 billion pounds of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels went uneaten in 2010.” A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that Americans toss a whopping 52 percent of the country’s fruits and vegetables—more than any other food group—and that a significant part of that loss occurs before the produce ever leaves the field.

In part, the waste is due to the market demand for perfect specimens, those unblemished apples and symmetrical carrots shoppers have come to expect. Other countries, including France, have responded to this issue by rebranding ugly produce to prevent it from going into landfills. Intermarché, France’s third-largest supermarket, launched a wildly successful campaign glamorizing “inglorious fruits and vegetables.” The UK and Portugal have followed with similar initiatives to promote eating misshapen produce.

On the home front, Najac, a tall, energetic woman with a sunny disposition—along with her Gleanmobile and a rotating cadre of volunteers—rescues produce that would otherwise go to waste and transports it quickly and efficiently to those who need food most. On the receiving end of Royal Acres’ bok choy is the Regional Economic Community Action Program (RECAP) in Middletown, plus two food pantries and a community health center in Port Jervis, where they stage a little farm stand in the waiting room to give away the produce.

“Farmers frequently lack the time and the manpower to deal with their excess harvest or market leftovers, and food pantries and soup kitchens can be selective about when and where they’ll accept deliveries,” says Najac. “We do everything possible to remove any barriers to the process.” This year alone the Gleanmobile initiative will help mobilize 250,000 pounds of produce in the Hudson Valley, including some from farms that plant crops specifically for donation.

REAPING THE CASTOFFS

Unfamiliarity can be another barrier to the favorable reception of rescued food. Kohlrabi, with its swollen and bulbous appearance, is not always welcomed with open arms in the emergency food system, and even a purple carrot might arouse suspicion from someone who has never seen one. When farmers’ staggered plantings succumb to unpredictable weather, a sudden enormous windfall of rescued radishes means coming up with recipe suggestions for soup kitchens reluctant to take on even slightly unusual vegetables. Najac tells a story about one food pantry manager who rejected a delivery of okra because it wasn’t familiar to her. Meanwhile, there was a woman standing in line who burst into tears at the mere sight of it. “It was something she had grown up eating,” remembers Najac, “and she was so grateful to have it again.”

Providing nutrition education and resources is a core mandate for City Harvest, an Orange County organization founded in 1982 that works exclusively within New York City. According to communications manager Samantha Park, the group’s mission has expanded beyond rescuing food—this year they will distribute 55 million pounds, more than half of it fresh produce—to addressing hunger’s root causes and its relationship to health. Volunteers from culinary schools offer lessons for families, seniors and teens on everything from how to cook with kids to enticing preparations for rutabagas and beets.

Gleaning is a grassroots movement founded on the hard work of countless volunteers. City Harvest has 160 full-time employees, yet still relies on volunteers to fill more than 14,000 opportunities every year. Not only are these unpaid helpers planting and harvesting in the fields, they’re cleaning produce, boxing it up and even helping to deliver it. Volunteers usually include all kinds of people, girl scouts and honor students as well as those exiting the prison system.

Many volunteers, like Lynne Snyder, who witnessed chronic waste and inequity during her years working in commercial and institutional food service, have come to embrace food security as a personal mission. Now a master gardener and food educator, Snyder finds volunteering in food rescue to be incredibly fun and rewarding. “You’re going to be working and sweating,” she says, “but you’ll see the immediate results when people get to eat the fruits of your labor.”

Many people find themselves gleaning fields for the first time thanks to UlsterCorps, a countywide organization based in Stone Ridge that connects people who want to do community service with volunteer opportunities, is almost entirely run by workers donating their time. According to director Beth McLendon, there’s something about preventing food waste and feeding hungry people that draws out would-be volunteers more than any other type of work.

McLendon’s dream is to one day own a refrigerated truck like Najac’s Gleanmobile, but for the moment UlsterCorps is focused on creating food storage hubs, including one in a former school with a walk-in refrigerator. “It’s tricky for food pantries to keep large quantities of produce on hand,” explains McLendon, “but if we can manage to store it locally, transportation becomes less of an issue and food stays fresher.”

One of the many positive effects of our modern food revolution is a greater awareness of where our food comes from and where it goes—or doesn’t go. Twenty percent of this country does not consistently have food on the table, yet vast quantities of uneaten food end up rotting in landfills, off-gassing methane that contributes to climate change.… Read More

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To the Letter

Next gen farming from Letterbox Farm Collective

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Photography by Christine Ashburn

Close your eyes and picture a farm. Is it a bucolic spread, with a big red barn, chickens pecking in the yard and a row of tall yellow sunflowers waving in the background? Or you might be imagining endless fields of wheat with an enormous automated combine barreling through and a legion of hunched laborers sorting through the industrialized debris? The further away we get from the sources of our food, the harder it is to imagine where it originates. But knowing its provenance has become increasingly important for the sake of flavor, nutrition and health—our own and that of the planet. Buying supermarket vegetables labeled “farm-fresh produce” seems like a poor substitute for placing our hard-earned cash directly into the hand of the farmer who actually grew that cauliflower and knows the character of their greens intimately. Such an interaction, however, raises another question: Would that money spent even have more than a negligible impact on the farmer in question? The dirty fingernails and calluses on that same hand, the worn overalls and rusty pickup truck that complete the profile, make small-scale farming appear much more like a labor of love than a viable career choice.

The often-quoted Wendell Berry, the much-lauded poet, farmer and environmental activist, says that, indeed, “farmers farm for the love of farming.” Despite its many hardships, frustrations and economic challenges, small-scale farming offers an independence from the corporate world and a connection to nature and community that is hugely rewarding. This life appeals to a new generation of young people who are approaching it with the creative entrepreneurship necessary to transform the existing paradigms. One thriving example is Letterbox Farm Collective, situated just outside the town of Hudson.

On a warm afternoon last fall, Faith Gilbert, Nichki Carangelo and Laszlo Lazar were enjoying a rare moment of relaxation at their farm, recovering from the previous night’s “Folk Food Feast.” At this dinner, created in collaboration with the back of the house staff of the celebrated New York City restaurant Momofuku Ko, the chefs worked their magic with pristine ingredients freshly harvested from Letterbox’s fields. Diners sat under the stars at long wooden tables, the herbal sweetness of fennel pollen perfuming the night air, and ate rabbit terrine with burnt onion mustard and 20-greens salad with flowers. The next day, strings of fairy lights were still draped about the property and the three farmers seemed tired but enormously satisfied. The event marked the culmination of their first harvest season and the beginning of a long-held dream come true.

Gilbert and Carangelo met in high school in Waterbury, Connecticut, and grew up sharing the same goals: a life well lived, with good food, good company and a sense of joy in the everyday. Gilbert went on to attend the University of San Francisco, where she got caught up in the Bay Area’s enthusiasm for local eating and learned about pickling and fermenting. Carangelo enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College and studied zookeeping at the Bronx Zoo. Both women subsequently found work on farms, as did Lazar, who went to an agricultural high school and then joined the Army Corps of Engineers, where he spent six years as a park ranger before returning to farming. It was only a matter of time before the three friends pooled their complementary skills and burning desires to build a farm of their own.

ROOTS DOWN

Gilbert looked all over the country for a place to farm right outside a small town and ended up finding the perfect spot back in the Hudson Valley. Letterbox Farm sits on rich silt loam with good drainage, land that had previously been farmed by three generations of the same family. Once situated on the property, the trio set about devising a business model based on collective ownership that would allow them to create a fully operational, financially viable and sustainable working farm.

At Letterbox Farm Collective, this means a farm that produces an income and quality of life for its workers as well as high-quality food for people in the region, whether they be restaurant diners, CSA members or farmers market denizens.

“We’re comfortable seeing farmers at the bottom of society,” says Carangelo, “but we have other expectations: a living wage, diversity in our work and a day off.” Collaboration is essential, as is effective communication. Though members of the collective have defined roles, it’s important they share knowledge so they are able to cover for one another. Gilbert handles the herbs, greens, flowers and greenhouses and works with the farm’s chef clients (sample their custom mixes of fresh greens at Bonfiglio & Bread in Hudson, or ice cream made with their nasturtium flowers at Momofuku Ko). Carangelo tends the livestock (chickens, rabbits and pigs) and gardens and is in charge of the market stands. Lazar is primarily focused on land management, including building and doing repairs. And Letterbox recently welcomed a fourth member, Audrey Berman, a graduate of Cooper Union with an architecture degree, who will be the new CSA (community-supported agriculture) manager. She immediately set to work making every workspace ergonomically correct and entering new building plans into AutoCAD. As Faith says, with evident delight, “I think we’re now officially the dream team!”

The concept of a “full-plate CSA” is central to Letterbox Farm, whose tagline is “Eat like a farmer.” Inspired by operations like Essex Farm—the 600-acre draft-horse-powered farm located near New York’s Lake Champlain that produces a full diet for more than 200 CSA members—a primary goal is to deliver everything their community needs to eat delicious balanced meals throughout the year.

Customers pay a set fee ahead of the season and then each week pick up a delivery including chicken, pork, rabbit, eggs, vegetables (from beets and squash to tomatoes and greens, as well as some of the more rarefied crops like fava beans and shishito peppers), cornmeal and some specialty items like ginger, herbs and spices. “Our CSA shares don’t have bar codes, money is removed from the equation, and customers feel the intimacy with their food that we get from growing it,” explains Gilbert. “It’s the difference between getting milk in a ball jar and buying a quart at the grocery store.”

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“Our CSA shares don’t have bar codes,
money is removed from the equation,
and customers feel the intimacy with
their food that we get from growing it.”

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BUYING THE FARM

After less than two years in operation, and with a lot of work and a little luck, the Letterbox collective managed to buy the land they are farming. Along with a new mortgage, this has brought greater security and deeper commitment, plus access to more outbuildings, which translates to an increase in their livestock. A loan obtained through the USDA Farm Service Agency’s Microloan program provided new fencing, irrigation, greenhouses and a couple of much-needed tractors. The farm is growing by leaps and bounds. All of the members of the collective are under 30, and their energy and optimism are palpable.

When not in the midst of planning, planting or plowing, time is often dedicated to research and writing. Faith recently authored Cooperative Farming, a handbook on forming collaborative farm ventures that she compiled from 42 interviews with farmers and professionals.… Read More

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friedRabbit

Rabbits: The other white meat

rabbits

Photographed by Laura Silverman

Let me just dismiss out of hand the notion that eating rabbits is objectionable simply because they are so damn cute. This line of thinking seems wholly unfair to all the other adorable, fluffy animals we so readily consume. With the same logic, should other animals be eaten, not because they are delicious, but because they fall far short of our conventional notions of cuteness (opossums)? Isn’t it high time we stopped letting images of Thumper and the Easter Bunny stand in the way of enjoying a delicious lapin à la moutarde? There is a growing movement that says yes.

Rabbit on the table was once quite commonplace in this country, where it’s long been associated with somewhat marginalized populations, including immigrants and the rural poor. During World War II, when beef was dedicated to feeding our overseas troops, the government encouraged people to raise rabbits for meat, and backyard hutches became as ubiquitous as victory gardens. The U.S. Department of Agriculture even produced leaflets with rabbit recipes, while Americans were assured that “the meat of the domestic rabbit is pearly white, fine-grained, nutritious, palatable and may be served throughout the year.” Later, when the French food revolution of the 1960s transformed American dining, thanks in part to Julia Child, that classic rabbit in mustard sauce was very much in vogue. And yet rabbit never really established a firm foothold in the supermarket, since cuniculture (the agricultural practice of breeding and raising rabbits) is more suited to a homestead or small-scale farm endeavor.

“Rabbits are more of an attention-grabber
at the moment,”
says Rick Franciosa
of Quails R-US Plus,
who acknowledges
that customers open to eating
rabbit
barely outnumber the more squeamish.

SUSTAINABLE RABBITAT

In large part this can be attributed to the difficulties of producing rabbits on a commercial scale. With fragile immune systems and a propensity to eat their young under stressful conditions, rabbits require a kinder, gentler environment than what is possible in a conventional industrial operation, say for chickens. This makes raising them an ideal venture for artisan producers like R’Eisen Shine Farm in Schaghticoke, New York, where owners Ejay and Kim Carter also raise pigs and sheep. “We believe we’re good at growing meat because we were vegetarians for so long,” says Ejay. “So we’re willing to do all kinds of crazy stuff, like taking ice packs out to the rabbits in the summer to keep them cool and comfortable.”

Their current production of 120 rabbits a year will soon triple with the completion of a new “rabbitat,” a pasture-based system with family- style groupings on grass designed to mimic the animals’ natural habitat. This increase in production, and a new on-site processing space where they can oversee their own slaughtering, will enable R’Eisen Shine Farm to go from selling only to its CSA customers to making rabbits available at wholesale and through local farmers markets.

Like other animals raised on pasture, rabbit is very sustainable. When it’s too cold to be grazing outside, they are fed alfalfa pellets and hay rather than energy-intensive soy or fish meal which is often given to poultry. A single doe (female rabbit) can have multiple litters every year—though the Carters respectfully limit their breeding to twice annually—and those litters of 8 to 10 kits (rabbit babies) will reach breeding age within months. This means that a rabbit can produce up to six pounds of meat on the same amount of feed and water it takes a cow to produce just one pound. The meat is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, high in protein and low in calories. Plus, the manure rabbits produce makes wonderful compost, returning important nutrients back to the soil.

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Kim and Ejay Carter of R’Eisen Shine Farms like to pamper their rabbits.

HARE SPLITTER

One thing that rabbit is not, however, is cheap. As with many boutique meats, the fairly hefty price tag is a reflection of the care and infrastructure needed to raise a quality product. R’Eisen Shine Farm charges their CSA “co-owners” a flat fee of $30 for a rabbit that weighs around 3.5 pounds, which is about twice the price of a whole pasture-raised chicken. Compare this rabbit to a similar specimen (though of unspecified origin) that was recently priced nearly double that at Eataly in New York City, and it makes sense, if you are going to forgo the chicken option, to consider raising rabbits at home.

The two most popular meat breeds are New Zealand and Californian, but many rabbit farmers end up creating their own unique mixes. The animal’s rapid and renowned reproductive cycle makes breeding goals attainable in a relatively short period of time. The Carters have been refining their crossbreed—“a mix of Californian, Satin, Rex and a few Giant-Chinchilla-crossed-with-Satin”—for the last four years, selecting for size, temperament, overall hardiness and an ability to convert pasture to meat.

In Honesdale, Pennsylvania, just across the New York State line, Rick and Linda Franciosa of Quails R-US Plus crossbreed their Californians and New Zealands with Silver Foxes, a rare breed recognized by Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste, which is a living catalog of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction. Though 200 breeding does will be needed for them to meet their ultimate goal of producing 100 rabbits a week, they are currently selling just a fraction of that at local farmers markets. “Rabbits are more of an attention-grabber at the moment,” says Rick, who acknowledges that customers open to eating rabbit barely outnumber the more squeamish. But he remains optimistic about evolving perceptions, in part because of the steady request for rabbit from several restaurants in Sullivan County, including Matthew’s on Main in Callicoon and The Heron in Narrowsburg.

Rabbit has historically been something of a
“crisis meat” in America—
eaten in response
to adverse circumstances of one sort or
another—and the current state
of our
meat production certainly qualifies as dire

MORE THAN ONE WAY TO COOK A RABBIT

Rabbit has parts that cook differently, much like chicken, whose mild flavor and smooth texture it shares. This makes braising a good option for the whole animal. At R’Eisen Shine Farm, a favorite dish is rabbit gently braised in wine with vegetables. Once falling-apart-tender, the meat is pulled from the fine, delicate bones and shredded over soft polenta. Brining or a good soak in buttermilk is the ideal prelude to a fried preparation. At Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria in New York City, rabbit is left overnight in a bath of crème fraîche, lemon zest and herbs before being dredged in semolina flour and fried to a crisp. The lean meat remains juicy and aromatic, without a trace of the gaminess sometimes encountered in wild rabbit.

At The Heron, chef Paul Nanni finds plenty of takers for his shepherd’s pie made with rabbit. “A lot of people upstate have grown up raising and eating rabbit,” he says, “and they love it.” He also wraps the loins with the saddle and poaches them for a roulade that is sliced and served with harissa, chopped hazelnuts and mustard oil. If all this is giving you a hankering for rabbit—or at least piquing your curiosity— consider booking a table at the Flammerie in Kinderhook.… Read More

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The Wright Stuff

Easier living through artistry

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Photograph courtesy of Manitoga/The Russel Wright Design Center

As in the quintessential chicken-egg conundrum, the best design seems to both spring from and engender social change. It arises from a need but also helps define desire. The renowned industrial designer Russel Wright and his wife, Mary, are credited with revolutionizing the way Americans live, and their work reflects an enormous sensitivity to the collective mindset during the years between the world wars. It was a time of real complexity, when the exuberance of the 1920s gave way to the anxiety of the Depression, and people needed hope, reassurance and a new way forward. Perhaps Russel’s greatest genius lay in his understanding that real change begins at home, and that the heart of every home is the table.

Russel Wright designed in layers emanating from the table, the place where we congregate, where we share stories over meals, where the dramas of life play out. He started with tableware—his colorful American Modern ceramics are the most widely sold American dinnerware in history, and his melamine collection earned him the Museum of Modern Art “Good Design Award” in 1953—and then moved on to furniture, architecture and ultimately landscaping. Russel Wright, the first true lifestyle designer (predating Ralph Lauren by about 40 years) had an all-encompassing vision that touched every part of daily existence. He was all about simplicity, convenience and efficiency, with one very important distinction: he never sacrificed comfort and beauty.

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Photography by George Billard

BETTER LIVING THROUGH ARTISTRY

An Ohio native, Wright (1904-1976) attended the Art Students League of New York before studying for a legal career at Princeton University. He left to pursue work as a set designer in New York City and eventually started his own design firm making theatrical props.

In 1927, while attending an artists’ colony in Woodstock, he met a sculptor and designer named Mary Small Einstein (a relative of the more famous Albert). They married shortly thereafter and together formed Wright Accessories, launching their first line of spun aluminum serving pieces. Everything that followed—dishes, textiles and furniture—supported the modern notion that life could be informal but organized, practical but elegant. Many of the early lines focused on serving pieces for buffets and cocktail parties because it was an easier, more casual and less expensive way for people to entertain. In 1950, Mary and Russel wrote the definitive tome on this lifestyle, with detailed instructions on everything from how to set a table to how to furnish the new open-plan home.

In Chapter 1 of their Guide to Easier Living, they wrote of the American people, “We are victimized by the illusions of generations who had the kinds of servants we do not have, afraid to change anything in the interest of comfort, work-saving or better family living, hearing inside our very walls the scornful whisper that we can’t afford or don’t know how, or haven’t the taste to do things ‘properly.’” As homes slowly lost their parlors and separate dining rooms, Russel and Mary Wright helped dispense with the stale notion that formal and fancy are better. Their inexpensive, easy-care, mix-&-match designs and forms set us free.

The Wrights’ partnership was a successful one, with Russel heralded as the design guru and Mary responsible for the company’s innovative marketing. She was the first to dub pale wood furniture “blond,” she pioneered department store appearances and converted Russel’s name and signature into a recognizable trademark on all their designs. Tragically, Mary’s important role in the company was cut short when she died of cancer in 1952, leaving Russel with a business to run and their 2-year-old daughter, Annie, to raise on his own.

Russel hired a housekeeper and soldiered on, taking an even more hands-on approach to the running of the household to the care of young child. Though father and daughter still maintained an apartment in New York City, Russel turned his attention to a large piece of property in Garrison, New York, where he had long dreamed of building a home. The site was an empty granite quarry— stone from there was used in the construction of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan—and Russel sketched out a structure buried right into the rock. He hired David Leavitt a young architect who had worked with Frank Lloyd Wright on several commissions in Japan. Together, they brought to life Russel’s vision of a house that is seamlessly incorporated into the landscape, created from elements both supremely modern and totally organic. “The house is with nature, not standing above it,” says Annie of her childhood home. When it was finished, she named it Dragon Rock because of the shape of the surrounding rock formation.

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Lunch at Dragon Rock

“The house
is with nature,
not standing
above it”

THE NATURE OF DESIGN

The first house ever to be featured in Life magazine, Dragon Rock embodies all of Russel’s theories of modern living. There are actually two structures, the main house and a smaller, one-bedroom studio where Russel worked and also lived during his later years. Both buildings are full of beautiful details transposed from nature: pine needles are embedded in epoxied walls and ceilings; stones from the quarry are repurposed as doorknobs; a cedar tree trunk serves as the main house’s principle column; butterflies and native grasses are captured between translucent fiberglass panels in a twist on Japanese shoji screens; a door is entirely covered with an enormous sheet of papery birch bark. In a cedar-lined bathroom, the low tub has a waterfall instead of a faucet, perfectly mimicking the view of the waterfall outside. Many of the textiles, fixtures and panels rotate with the seasons, changing color and texture to reflect the climate and mood. There are ingenious built-ins and systems designed to streamline effort and maximize pleasure.

It was at Dragon Rock and its surrounding 70-plus acres—known collectively as Manitoga, meaning “place of great spirit” in the language of the native Algonquins— that Wright finally found a canvas large enough to fully express his vast talent and vision. Undeterred by the condition of the grounds, which had been somewhat disfigured by a long history of lumbering and quarrying, he began a careful manipulation of the materials at hand: trees, wildflowers, ferns, water, shade and light. He also brought in new elements, including seven different kinds of moss that he enlisted Annie’s help in painstakingly planting throughout the property.

He became an inspired ecological designer, sculpting the landscape and carving out paths that would lead to the most dramatic vistas. “He loved to art direct life,” Annie recalls. “ He was all about that ‘aha!’ moment.”

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Russel and recipe collaborator Margaret Spader cooking together in the kitchen at Dragon Rock
Photograph courtesy of Maintoga/The Russel Wright Design Center

Perhaps Russel’s greatest genius
lay in his understanding that real
change
begins at home, and that
the heart of every home is the table.

No detail was too small to merit Russel’s attention. His daughter remembers him setting the table for breakfast the night before so everything would be just so. Cooking and entertaining were like design projects to him, and he was passionate about every detail, from the food to the serving dishes to the table settings.… Read More

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