On Chicken and Values and Mindfulness

The Tale

I threw a chicken into the garbage today. And I felt awful about it. Through my own carelessness and inattention, I took a frozen chicken out of my chest freezer and forgot to put it back, leaving it on the cement floor of a hot garage for twelve or so hours. It was largely thawed, but while my heart wanted to go ahead and just roast it, my head said to take the well-Googled advice and discard it, thus avoiding a chance to catch food poisoning.

About the Chicken

First, let me begin by stating that I am not a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. I understand the ethical underpinnings of such a diet, but I am an omnivore who has no issues with eating animal flesh and other animal products. If you are one, I applaud your finding a diet that dovetails with your convictions. But my convictions differ from yours.

Let me tell you about this chicken, though. It was humanely raised—pastured and able to peck in the dirt for bugs and slugs, just like a chicken should. It was locally raised as well, as I went to the farm to buy it. And therefore, it cost more than the factory chicken found at supermarkets. The cost is something I’m willing to pay—I’d rather pay more for high quality food and buy less. This is not a value judgement against you if you purchase supermarket poultry. Remember that food is my “thing”. I spend a bit more to buy crisp organic butterhead lettuce from a local organic farmer than my 99-cent iceberg loss-leader. I would much rather buy a small piece of unusual and artisanal cheese that retails for $29.99/lb. than buy pounds of pre-shredded industrial cheese. But I rein in my spending elsewhere—I don’t buy many clothes, I cook my own meals rather than going out to restaurants frequently, and I don’t need the latest electronics. I’m childfree, so I don’t have to worry about feeding a family. I’m not judging you, so please don’t judge me.

Chickens, Values, Mindfulness

So what bothered me about throwing this chicken in the trash? It wasn’t the money—I am fortunate to be able to afford this and can easily get another without sacrificing my monthly food budget. No, it was something else—I respect my food and I respect the producers who have provided it for me. In this case, it was an affront to my values caused by my own carelessness. That chicken was slaughtered–for nothing!–because of my negligence. The hard work and labor of the farmers who raised it, a lovely young couple making a go of it on a local organic farm, was for naught because I was not paying attention. It’s not about the money—it never is and never was. It was, instead, a disconnect from my values.

In a way, I am grateful to that chicken for prodding me to focus on mindfulness, the act of paying attention and being in the moment. I vow to be more present and I vow to show more respect for the food that nourishes me. And I vow to treat the next chicken with more care.

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Farmers Market Finds: Mayan Jaguar Lettuce

The Start of the Season and the Start of Discovery

With the advent of my local farmers market (Minnetrista in Muncie, Indiana) holding weekly markets, I look forward to the thrill of culinary discovery, of the delight of finding a new-to-me variety of vegetable or fruit, or of a vendor offering me new locally produced treats. This past Saturday, I ventured to (and through) the market, with its wares. The pickings, and the number of vendors, were rather slim—it’s been a very challenging spring for planting. The average high temperature in February was followed by a lower one in March. Following on the heels of a relatively colder March, April turned warm again. May, what few days of it we’ve had, had been a cold, soggy, sodden mess. Copious amounts of rain interspersed with frost. As an organic farmer I know said, it’s been a most challenging spring for a farmer.

Still, on that morning of May 6, it wasn’t raining, despite being forecast. I ventured over to one of my favorite produce stands (Christopher Farms, a local organic operation), so see what farmer and all around wonderful person Wendy Carpenter had to present to her customers, both loyal and new. Knowing that I was looking to eat more salads, I was drawn to one of the more striking lettuces I’ve ever seen—Mayan Jaguar.

Mayan Jaguar Lettuce

With its dappled maroon and green, a head of Mayan Jaguar lettuce certainly commands a second look. This has the ability to form the foundation of a seriously interesting looking salad (interesting as in good, not weird). So naturally, I had to buy some.

Mayan Jaguar lettuce belongs in the romaine/cos family. The head is tall and the spines of the leaves have that characteristic romaine crunch. Its leaves are gorgeously ruffled. It is a beautiful lettuce.

Flavor-wise, Mayan Jaguar is sweet with a hint of bitterness. In a salad, it pairs nicely with balsamic vinegar and walnuts. Add some dried fruit and blue or goat cheese for a delicious dish. I will share a salad recipe which uses Mayan lettuce to its advantage in my next post.

Start Your Own Voyage of Discovery

If you have a local and treasured farmers market, find a vendor with unusual varieties of produce. In my experience, I’ve found that organic farmers are likelier to offer something different than conventional farmers (but I am a sample size of one). If you are unsure, just ask—most farmers would love a chance to talk about their products! It’s a great chance to break out of a standard-supermarket-variety rut.

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The Not-So-Lonesome Prairie: Goats!

Oh, Capricorn

WhiteGoatWithBrown

Perhaps when you think of “goat”, you think of Capricorn, the zodiac sign (Caprinae are the class of animal that includes goats and sheep). Not me. When I hear the word “goat”, I think of cheese, delicious goat cheese. And because of that, and my interest in the culinary geography of the Midwest and Plains, I made a pilgrimage of sorts to Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, a goat creamery just outside of Champaign, Illinois (home of the University of Illinois’ main campus).

About Goat Cheese

Goat milk and goat dairy is preferred in some parts of the world. And that includes goat cheeses, which are typically piquant. Many people are familiar with fresh chèvre, the spreadable goat cheese that vaguely resembles cream cheese. Chèvre is creamy, tangy, sprightly, a delightful minuet on the tongue. But goat milk is employed in many other kinds of cheeses. Bûcheron, for example, is a semi-aged cheese, with an edible white bloomy rind covering a firmer ivory layer which in turn encases a softer white, lemony cheese that is spreadable. There are even firm aged goat cheeses.

Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery

On a pitch-perfect summer morning, with clichéd cloud-free sky and low humidities, I navigated the detours on N Lincoln Ave to make my way to Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery. I arrived at the farm, only to find a “Closed” sign. Well, this was not good. After all, I’d not only messaged them on Facebook to make sure they’d be open, I actually spent the previous night in Champaign to be able to visit them the next day. Undeterred, I drove in and parked my car. The creamery door was closed, but not locked, so I just walked in. And it was devoid of people. I snooped around a bit and finally saw a young woman with an infectious smile on the other side of the glass, working with cheese. She came over to help me. I explained that I was assured they’d be open. The young woman, Lynn (see photo below), was one of the cheesemakers and she, in turn, assured ME that they were certainly open. That they’d sell me some cheese and that I could wander around the farm. Fridays, she said, were less formal. So, we commenced with the tasting (and in my case, the buying!)

Lynn

My Cheese Haul

I tasted a number of wonderful goat cheeses. And I BOUGHT a number of wonderful goat cheeses—Little Bloom on the Prairie (a bloomy rind cheese—think Camembert); Angel Food (another bloomy rind goat cheese—in small rounds); Moonglo, a firm, aged cheese which has a washed rind (a brine is used to bathe the cheese); goat feta (deliciously creamy and tangy); and fresh chévre (which I’ve been enjoying by the spoonful!). Prairie Fruits also makes a raw milk goat cheese call Huckleberry Blue, which is a seasonal product. I didn’t get any because it wasn’t the season!

CheeseHaul

And Now for Something Completely Different: Goat Gelato!

Yes, you read that right. Prairie Fruits makes goat GELATO. As in the frozen dessert. Okay, it was brunch time and I hadn’t eaten (mostly in anticipation of this!), so I was all set to eat some gelato. There were about ten flavors available and I choose individual servings of Espresso and Peaches and Cream. Both were delicious, but the Espresso was especially exquisite! I sat down on one of the farm’s picnic tables to have my late breakfast. I would encourage anyone to swap out their oatmeal or bagel for some goat gelato to start the day!

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Wandering the Grounds

Both Lynn (the cheesemaker) and her colleague Sarah suggested that I wander around the farm. They told me to go visit the barns and see the milking does and the young kids (actually, teenagers by now). So I did (and I am sharing a few photos with you). I got a chance to see the pen where the retired does were frolicking as well. The goats’ eyes were soft, yet animated.

Goat2_RS

A Chat with Wes Jarrell

Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery is owned by the husband-and-wife duo of Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperbrand, former academics (see, friends, there IS life after academe! Rich life, too!) While I was enjoying my gelato, Wes came over, sat down, and chatted with me for a bit. That’s how I found out he had been a professor (even a department head at University of Wisconsin-Madison, I believe). We talked about the farm, about people not understanding (or paying for) the true value of food (remember that a lot of what you eat is subsidized and benefits big corporations). He told me about the gelato (how they had someone go to Europe to study gelato-making); the gelato, I found out, was a pretty new product for them. We talked about agricultural sustainability and organic farming (and they are NOT necessarily synonymous!) Mr. Jarrell was very, very generous with his time. He also shared with me that Prairie Fruits supplies the restaurants of Rick Bayless, the noted chef with some stellar restaurants in Chicago. With this kind of background, I knew I’d be enjoying those cheese very much upon my return to Muncie; it took a fair amount of willpower not to pull the car off the interstate and dig into my purchases.

Will I Be Back? In a Word, YES!

I should have bought more cheese. I know I’ll run out soon. That makes this Flyover Tapan sad. BUT, I will be back, maybe with some friends of mine! People, if you are at all interested in local and regional products and you love food, you owe it to yourself to visit Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery.

Little Bloom on the Prairie
A runny Little Bloom on the Prairie
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Gunthorp Farms and Leftover Cranberry Sauce: A Small Thanksgiving Post-Mortem

A Word about the Bird

This may have been my best turkey ever! Delicious flavor that didn’t NEED gravy (although gravy certainly wasn’t turned down!) This year’s bird was a Gunthorp Farms turkey, a fine-looking, pasture-raised 15-lb bird. Gunthorp Farms raises meat and poultry naturally, as opposed to an industrial model, and provides turkeys (and chicken, duck, lamb, and pork) to some of the best restaurants in the Midwest, including those of Rick Bayless. Starting out with quality poultry is one of the keys to a delicious Thanksgiving turkey.

I also roasted the turkey breast-side DOWN. The breast meat was unbelievably moist and the dark meat was perfectly cooked. Granted, you don’t get the Norman Rockwell picture-perfect bird, but I’d much rather have a good TASTING turkey than one that is dry, but photogenic. Which is why there’s no picture here.

Too Much Cranberry Sauce? Ideas for Using Up Leftovers

It happens. With your cranberry bounty from Wisconsin, you made plenty of cranberry sauce, like this one. But there is plenty left over, too. So, what can you do with leftover cranberry sauce? Lots of things!

  • Stir it into yogurt or oatmeal
  • Thin it with a little juice (or even a little water) and use it as a topping for ice cream, pound cake, cheesecake, or waffles
  • Make thumprint cookies (here’s a classic recipe), replacing the jam with cranberry sauce (which is, basically, a jam).
  • PBandC_Sandwich

  • And here’s a personal favorite of mine—use some in a peanut or almond butter and jam sandwich. I especially like natural peanut butter (crunchy!) on good homemade or artisanal bread with cranberry sauce
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Why-owa? My Thoughts on the Farmers Market State

My Connection to the Hawkeye State

In the early aughts (2002-2003), I spent a year as a visiting instructor at the University of Iowa, which meant living in the Iowa City area. Having known very little about the Midwest (except that it was some place I never imagined living in), I was beyond pleasantly surprised by Iowa City (although, as a student told me, “Iowa City is not what you think of when you think of Iowa”). I really loved my year here, even those winter mornings featured a few too many temperature readings below 0°F.

In Which She Marvels at the Food Available to Her

Let it be said at the time, I was (and still am) what would be termed a “healthy eater”. Definitely a food lover (why else would I write this blog?), but certainly leaning toward the healthy end of the spectrum. At the time, that was high-fiber, low-fat, semi-vegetarian (today such a diet is no longer the sin qua non of healthy eating, as meat and butter and such have made quite the comeback). But I had no trouble finding organic vegetables, tofu, tempeh, exotic cheeses, interesting grains and the like. In fact, I joined the New Pioneer Food Co-op within 6 hours of moving to Iowa. What a magical place that was for me! Two branches—one (complete with a bakehouse turning out marvelous and inventive breads) within a short walk of my apartment and one within a short walk of my campus office. I was in gustatory heaven!

Then there were the restaurants. Spanning the globe in terms of cuisines, as well as ways of eating (e.g. vegetarian), I had numerous choices on the days I opted not to cook (which were many, given that I was finishing a dissertation at an East Coast school and teaching a full load of mostly new classes at Iowa). Granted, Iowa City is a Big Ten (or 11 or 12—I’m out of touch with this now) with a large medical school (and dental school and law school) to boot, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. But (and this was probably some residual East Coast elitism) I was nonetheless pleasantly delighted at my options!

But one of the things I really loved were the farmers markets. Yes, plural—I shopped at the Iowa City one (open twice a week) and the Coralville one (once a week). And now there’s a third one in the old Sycamore Mall location. Anyway, the array of produce options and other goods (breads, etc.) was wonderful. So, when I ran the numbers for farmers markets, I really wasn’t that surprised. There’s clearly a market for farm-fresh products in Iowa. Iowa has a food-aware populace (why else would my coop—and I’m still a member—have two locations, with a third on the way). And, also important, there are actual farmers there as well. So to me it makes sense that Iowa leads the farmers market charge!

SeedSaversGiantZittauOnion

And Something Else: Seed Savers Exchange

Iowa is also the home of the United States’s premier organization devoted to the preservation of heirloom varieties of produce and plants, as well as heritage breeds of animals, Seed Savers Exchange. This nonprofit has been around since 1975. I’ll post about it some other time (as I was fortunate to visit this past summer), but to me it is another indication of the food (and food-issue) cognizant people you find in Iowa. No, it’s not all heirloom peaches and heritage cream (I drove by a Monsanto plant and did give them the finger), but there is a critical mass there.

SeedSaversFlowers

Why-Owa? Iowa!

In short, finding Iowa front and center in the number of farmers markets per capita is almost expected. There’s farmland, farmers, and a ready (and educated) populace—ingredients for a successful farmers market locus!

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