Cook the Freezer Challenge

Once upon a time, 18 months ago, I moved to rural Nebraska. I really had no idea what to expect, but if I had had expectations, everything here would have far exceeded them. I ended up meeting and working with incredible people, while making my little difference in helping build healthier, happier, fairer food systems. I’m so glad I got to spend time here – it’s really been amazing.

And now, I’m on to a new chapter. At the end of the month, I’ll be moving to Napa, California to work for a former boss on a start-up restaurant that’s also a non-profit organization. This new farm-to-table restaurant is going to train and employ at-risk youth, who will be cooking, gardening, farmers-marketing, and more. I’ll be doing a little bit of everything – coordinating and training interns, working with farmers, cooking… It’s exciting and terrifying (but in a good way) all at the same time, and I can’t wait to get out there and start!

*   *   *

The more I got wrapped up in living life out here in Nebraska, the more I neglected this here blog. But now, as I leave, I figured it deserved one more post.

As it turns out, leaving is quite the cooking challenge. Over 18 months here, I’ve stocked my pantry and freezer well enough to ride out about 6 months of zombie apocalypse.

Since settling my plans to leave, about a month ago, I have not purchased groceries. Strange and tasty things have since emerged from the depths of the freezer and pantry, culminating last night with 15 guests and an eat-all-Amy’s-food-and-drink-all-her-drinks Party. Continue reading

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Are you lost?

One day, I went into a gas station in Fremont, Nebraska to pay. As I stood in line, a man came in to wait behind me. Then he spoke up.

“Are you lost?”

I had no idea what he meant.

“I see you’ve got Massachusetts plates on your car,” he added.

“Yeah,” I quipped. “I turned onto I-80 somewhere and then I just kept going.”

*   *   *

This Monday, as I drove down the gravel road between Lindy and Santee, in far-off-the-beaten-path Nebraska, it crossed my mind again that I must baffle anyone passing me who happens to get a glimpse of my license plates. Out here, I really do wonder sometimes what on earth they think I’m doing. Especially when I’m pulled over on the side of the road and/or standing on top of my car to take in the view.

Looking down into Santee and the lakes of the Missouri river

Yep, I really did mean “on top.” The view was better from up here.

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Favas in Middle America

Today at a Hy Vee supermarket in Sioux City, Iowa, I was shopping for my next Santee dinner when something in the produce case caught my eye. Upon closer inspection, the item turned out to be a shrink-wrapped styrofoam tray of about 20 whole fava beans selling for $2.99, which I gleefully grabbed and carefully placed in the non-Santee section of my cart.

These were the first fresh fava beans I’d seen since June, when I was an intern at the Rome Sustainable Food Project.

It was in Rome that I’d learned to cook through a season of local, organic, Mediterranean produce, falling in love with it all as I went. Moving to Nebraska, I’ve found that I really don’t lack for delicious local ingredients, and I can’t wait to cook through a new season. But some of those Mediterranean things, I’ve really missed. Bay leaf hedges. Capers bursting out of stone walls. Giant rosemary bushes that survive outside in the winter and live for years and years.

But this isn’t a Mediterranean climate, and what’s more, produce grown in Nebraska doesn’t cater to Mediterranean tastes. But even though, I never expected to find fava beans in middle America, I wasn’t going to let the opportunity to eat some pass me by. Even if they were exorbitantly priced, covered in ridiculous amounts of environmentally-awful packaging, and in tiny packages that would yield about a third of a cup of shelled beans.

I went back to my shopping list, my mind wandering from the Santee dishes to think about what I was going to make for dinner with my precious favas.

“Excuse me,” came a voice. Continue reading

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Make My Next One A Rhubarb Windfall

Small-town bars have their perks.

Last week, Inga and I wandered into the Lyons bar after work. We got our drinks and began walking to an empty table. As we passed, a table of retired farmers jokingly called to us and invited us to join them. So we did.

After several rounds of beers, much repeating of the same getting-to-know-you questions with a tipsy 75-year-old (“I’m from Boston. Remember, I pointed out my Sam Adams Boston Lager? Three times.”), and much general chatting and merriment, we somehow happened upon an invitation to cut and use as much rhubarb as we wanted from the woman sitting across the table, who, as it turns out, lives across the street from us.

We stayed at the bar for a long time that evening. And a few days later, we took full advantage of the rhubarb windfall.

(Recipes after photos and after the jump.)

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How Does Your Garden Grow?

Here is my gardening experience to date:

  • fiddling around as a little kid in the 5’ x 5’ patch of dirt behind my house, under the shade of 6 giant oak trees (herbs grew sometimes; peppers grew never)
  • growing oregano, thyme, mint, basil, and rosemary in a giant container on the low rooftop outside my window as a college summer session counselor, eliciting suspicious looks every time I mentioned cooking with additions from my pot of herbs.
  • tending the Rome Sustainable Food Project garden at the height of summer, harvesting and weeding under the watchful eye and strict instruction of the chef
  • inheriting and gleefully harvesting kale, green tomatoes, and garlic in the garden of my house, planted by the last intern to live here

As much as I now spend my time helping people grow their new gardens, I’m almost embarrassed by how little I know myself. But there’s no better way to learn then by jumping right in. Or so I hope.

Fortunately, I have the help of my roommate Inga, who constantly stops, thinks, and reminds herself that we’re planting for just two people, not the crowd she’s accustomed to feeding with her operations. So perhaps we’ll end up with an absurd amount of food this summer. But that’s fine by me. I have outlets.

My house’s garden is bigger this year than the plot I inherited in the fall, thanks to Inga’s getting the local hardware shop owner to till up our yard with his tractor ($20). He was careful to leave the garlic, which had shot up weeks earlier (both singly, where I had planted cloves, and in absurd clumps, where I had failed in the fall to find and dig entire heads).

Over the last week or so, Inga and I have planned and planted most of our garden. We’ve measured and mulched, seeded and sprinkled. As of now, it all seems somewhat baffling, but I’m hoping to get to a moderate level of competence here. When I’m feeling particularly confused, I remind myself that once, I didn’t really know anything about cooking, and look at me now.

So how does my garden grow? Honestly, I have no idea. But I’m going to find out.

Seeds started in peat pots: midget tomatoes, tropea onions, sage, oregano, chives, and marjoram. Tropea onions and marjoram demonstrate a key garden principle I'm catching onto already: if you don't think you'll ever find it to buy, grow it yourself.

(more photos after the jump)

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Shadow Brook Farm

My Community CROPS beginning farmer class continues to deliver on interesting farm tours of organic operations on gorgeous days. Today, we toured Shadow Brook Farm (and Dutchgirl Creamery). Shadow Brook’s main cash crop is its rainbow of salad mix, both gorgeous and delicious. Kevin Loth, the farmer, gave all who wanted bags of last week’s mix on the verge of heading past vertical. I ate in by the handful in the car on my way home from Lincoln and enjoyed every last absurd bit of the snack.

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Sioux Chef Needs Your Help

At the very first meeting of the Santee Sioux Nation Garden and Market project almost six months ago, it was clear that diets and food options in Santee need to improve. I’m a cook, so I went about helping people eat better in my absolute favorite way: serving people good food and teaching them to make it themselves.

First with planning meeting lunches, then with recipes, demos, and more, good food cooking training became an integral part of what we’re doing in Santee. From shared dinners to distributed recipes to cooking demos, we’re teaching people how to use unfamiliar fresh foods. Now, our project is about both bringing fresh foods to the area and teaching people the skills needed to use them.

I need your help to make this fresh, healthy food access project happen.

When my organization planned this project, no one knew we’d have such a big cooking element. Unfortunately, this means there’s no budget for it in the grant we have to fund our work.

We’ve been barely scraping by with the few meals and demos we’ve done, but for the whole business to continue, we’ve got to raise some more money. So of course, we’re working on the conventional sort of grants, but the Sioux Chef project needs money now in order to keep teaching healthy cooking through the summer as the fresh produce comes in.

When I realized we might have to stop the cooking and food training since we had no funds, I found that pretty unacceptable. As I looked for alternative funding sources, I thought to myself, “heck, I care about this so much, I would just donate some money to the project.” I got to thinking some more, and then I got to hoping that maybe other people might feel the same way. That’s where you come in.

Sioux Chef is now up and accepting pledges on Kickstarter. With your support, we’ll have the funds we need to do a really good job with this cooking training and recipe development project.

Please, please, please donate to the project (well, technically, make a pledge, and if enough people pledge to reach the goal [although I really hope we exceed it], you get charged for the donation). In exchange for your donation, you’ll get access to the Sioux Chef blog (that’s why the recipes have been password protected) to cook along with us, plus your choice of other cool rewards.

Basically, I’m super passionate about this project, and I’m going to try my darndest to make it go, and then cook up a storm and develop great recipes that will make other people happy to cook fresh things.

Please donate.

And then, please tell everyone you know about this project. Post on facebook, tell the people you work with, tell all your friends… the more the word gets out there that people can help spread good, healthy, sustainable food and cooking to people who really need it, the more of a shot we have of actually getting funded.

With your help, we’ll make a project that keeps good food around to stay.

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Instant Espresso Milk

When Inga milked the cows for three days this week, she filled the farm’s fridges with the appropriate amounts of milk ordered by the people who come to the farm to buy their raw milk. The rest came back to our fridge.

Then, Inga left for a week and left me three and a half gallons of milk. Since I (a) can’t possibly drink that much before it gets sour and (b) am also leaving for five days starting Tuesday, I set to work on high-volume yogurt, buttermilk*, and ice cream making endeavors, looking to convert the milk into forms in which its deliciousness will last indefinitely.

As I puttered around the kitchen gathering ingredients for my various projects, my eyes fell on the jar of instant espresso powder that sits on my newly-organized spice shelf. I keep it around mainly to throw into chocolate baked goods for an extra hit of toasty complexity, having never in my life actually used it to make instant espresso. But working through a long morning pouring jar after jar of milk into various pots, pans, and bowls, I was ready for an experimental pick-me-up.

As a kid in the school cafeteria, I never chose coffee milk. Frankly, it scared me. First off, I didn’t like coffee. Second, I couldn’t figure it out. Was it coffee? Was it milk? I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea. So I stuck with my red-carton milk and warily avoided the light brown-lettered one with the mysterious contents.

I’ve still never tried the cafeteria carton of coffee milk, but I can now vouch for the deliciousness of instant espresso milk, which comes together in about 30 seconds. While I’m sure the beige cafeteria carton contained ungodly amounts of sugar, my little jar (they make cute and convenient glasses) of instant espresso milk needed none. With milky sweetness tempered by the rich but bitter coffee, instant espresso milk is the perfect morning treat.

Now, as I face the temptation to work through the rest of my remaining un-yogurtified milk this way, the trick will be limiting my consumption enough to sleep through the night. Unfortunately, dehydrated and decaffeinated are two completely different things…

Halfway through making instant espresso milk

(instructions after the jump)

Continue reading

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Today’s post brought to you by the letter “R”

“But where’s your Boston accent?”

As a Bostonian living in Nebraska, I field this question a lot. I generally explain that while Boston accents sound like home to me, I didn’t grow up quite in the right place or the right family to speak with one. But I can pull out a good “Pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd, put a quahtah in the meetah” on demand, or even toss in a “wicked pissah” if I’m in appropriate company. By the time I ask people if they’ve seen “The Depahted,” I’ve generally satisfied the Boston curiosity enough for the conversation to move on.

I may not have a Boston accent, but I don’t have a Nebraska accent, either. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the two are complete opposites. Bostonians take all the Rs out, and Nebraskans put them back in where they never were before.

Now, I spend a lot of my time out here dealing with fresh produce. So, I have this food safety tip for you if you are bringing in zucchini and crookneck from your garden this summer: before you cook with them, please remember to “warsh the squarsh.”

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter “R.”

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Common Good Farm

Today, my beginning farmer class at Community CROPS had a lesson from Evrett Lunquist about organic growing practices, then went on a tour of his certified organic and biodynamic Common Good Farm. On a hilltop 20 minutes north of Lincoln, it almost seems like an idyllic wonderland. Especially on a sunny, 85 degree day. But it’s the real deal.

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