December 30, 2008

A Tale of 3 Cities and 3 Boys

Although I don't have any food stories today (due to not cooking for a week and overkill from the food-crazed holidays), I am taking a break from packing for my Seattle trip to tell you about 2 sets of 3 things that are as important to me as good food - therefore, equally-worth writing about.

I'm in the midst of a two day process of packing, unpacking, packing, and unpacking. Traveling from the Cities, to Hills, to the Cities again, then to Seattle. Traveling can be exhausting, but what it forces out of you is very rewarding. (And it helps when you carry keepsakes from friends with you.)

Last week brought me back home to Hills, MN for the holidays. Hills is the southwestern-most city in Minnesota - a bedroom community composed of about 500 residents. It's a nice place to call home: maybe half of the town is related, there's a charming cafe, my mom can sell her homemade lefse at our local meat locker, and its not rare to have your neighbors come over for the day to learn to can tomatoes or make applesauce. Traveling back and forth to the Twin Cities and Hills always involves a transition in mindset. Obviously, the pace of life is faster in the Cities, the people are more liberal, I can find goat cheese and quinoa within a half mile, and your neighbors don't know your whole life's history. But I have learned to appreciate each for what it's given my life experience - security, memories, family, new opportunities, fine dining, and an education - to name a few. And now, a new city will be in the mix, Seattle. I am visiting a publisher I know out there as graduation is looming and I want to see what's out there for jobs. And I want to site-see. I am excited about this new set of experiences and to see what life is going to reveal.

Comparing these cities, thinking about what each of them has shown (and will show) me is very much like what my three little nephews have done for my life. I have three older sisters who, six years ago, happened to get pregnant the same year. We knew trouble was brewing ... fast forward a few years and we've got 3 little hooligans terrorizing anything that was in their arm's reach. It has been an adventure to watch them all grow up together. Now at the age of 6, they are in their first year of school. And their humor and wit has tripled.

Levi is both the lion and the lamb. His animal-like growls and hisses may have you think for a minute that my sister bore a tiger. And those facial expressions, sometimes I'm even scared of my own nephew. But his gentleness surfaces as quickly as his agressiveness. He will be the first to crawl into your lap with a snuggly blanket for a movie. Levi's shown me the importance of having a complex character, it keeps things interesting and makes you adaptable.

Caden is the comedian; you can always find him trying to make people laugh. Whether it's attempting a joke he heard on Disney, or being a tiger with Levi (see above), or just giving you is painstakingly-cute smile. If that doesn't get you, his hair always smells like Baby Magic shampoo. His natural bleach-blonde hair tells me he's going to be a little heartbreaker :) This little one has made me see the joy and power of laughter. And reminds me how good Baby Magic is, to the point where I'm considering using it myself. He's a snuggler, too - much like myself and Levi.

Last, but not least, is Isaac. I have spent the most time with this guy as he lives the closest to my parents' house. Isaac, simply put, is a brain. He was the first to teach me about a 'backhoe' at the age of 3, as it was his toy present for filling out his 'poop-chart' when he was a toddler. (In case you don't know either, it's a tractor with a front loader and a digging bucket on the back used for excavation purposes.) His tendency to bombard you with questions reminds me a little of myself, as I have been known to do the same frequently. He asks those classic kid questions that are so simple, yet so complex - like 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' After telling him I am a writer, he told me to write some dinosaur books and send them to his local library soon. I told him I'd get right on it. He's reaffirmed my belief in the importance of questions and inspires me to absorb knowledge like a sponge.

Comparing people and places is like comparing apples to oranges. But I can tell you that each with their own characteristics, these cities and these boys are guiding me along life, forcing me to learn about myself, continuing to show me beauty, and constantly surprising me.

When I count my blessings, these 6 are up there with the apples and the oranges.

December 23, 2008

the cup

I visited my aunt for brunch yesterday morning , where we finished off the last of my scones with a coat of Black Currant jam. This deliciousness was followed by potato soup for lunch, made with my excess farm CSA vegetables.

This aunt is my father's oldest sister. As a youngster, I remember thinking she was the coolest person because she was the first woman in my family I saw wear red lipstick. I always like visiting her because she tells me stories of my deceased grandparents and great grandparents, who she was very close to, and because of age, I was not. Stories about how my great grandma handmade pasta and hung them all over the bedroom to dry out. And about a set of coffee cups she inherited from grandma. This particular set used to be one of my grandmas favorites.

I faintly remember having coffee with gramp and gram with these petit mugs. Grandpa would always dip his cookies in the coffee (every morning at 10 am), leaving it in too long, and finding the dipped part gone after bringing it back up for air. Then he'd sip the drenched cookie settlings at the bottom of the cup. Doing all this, while watching re-runs of professional wrestling programs on tv. (WWF, anyone?) They were an interesting couple. What makes them even cooler was that they were Democrats living in a land where Conservatives were a dime-a-dozen.

So I want to share this soup and cup with you in hopes you find some memories of your grandparents or family members.

December 21, 2008


Today was full of surprises. I tip-toed around the duplex this morning in an attempt to make scones for the first time, trying not to wake-up my roommate whose goal was to sleep in until noon. Apparently, it sounded as though I was running about franticly. And maybe I unconsciously was because the scones did jazz me up a bit. Preparation went as expected, I kneaded the sticky dough 12 times as suggested.

But when it came time to take them out of the oven, (I've been so good about not peeking at things in the oven, not letting all the heat escape and throwing all the chemistry off) I was quite surprised. They were huge. GARGANTUAN if you will. Now, the recipe suggested cutting them in 8 or 12. I opted for 8 because when I want a scone I want a scone, not a piece of one. And boy did I get a scone.

I then visited my friend Mary to share a scone with and wrap Christmas presents. I arrived while she was on a last-minute Target-run so I waited in my car. Getting sick of staring at my gray interior, I stepped out with my camera. As much as I hate Minnesota winters, it was magical outside. Especially her house.

Her place is so simple, much like my favorite wine shop. I love how the snow settled on her front bushes, like stiffening hot caramel on an apple, or cheese on a florette of broccoli (a combo which I don't condone eating.) We had an equally beautiful time inside, sipping coffee (no Baileys this time), munching scones, wrapping presents, all while Ozzy Osborne and Jessica Simpson serenaded us with Christmas music, together. I'm not kidding.

December 20, 2008

good morning

I have two things to share today:

Yesterday morning I awoke to a lovely little story in my email Inbox, written by my father about the pain and joy of attending Christmas programs. It made me miss him. He has a knack for picking up things quickly, despite official training in anything. He's a woodworker, farmer, photographer, butcher, bird-watcher, weatherman - you name it - and now writer, I guess.

This will make me laugh, forever.

I am 63 years old and have gone through a number of grade-school Christmas programs over the years with 6 kids of my own, kids next door, and now grandchildren. Each one of them I always wanted to stay from - the reasons were many. No. 1 - The heat of the home felt so good. No. 2- Being tired from the day's work load. No. 3 - Needed to get to bed so I could get up in the morning to milk the cows. No. 4 - The car had no heater; it was colder than the barn. I ended up going because mom said the kids wanted us there and they did need a ride in. Many good songs were sung and poems were read. All was good and great but they key thing that made it happen in those cold and dark nights (and to this day I hope they will not let me down) is when that 4th grade band comes out and completely kills Jingle Bells. There is a 'ray of hope' / 'light at the end of the tunnel' , but those 4th graders are always so proud of what they had just done. And I am too. And by the way, the Brandon Valley 4th graders did not let me down Tuesday night. -Dad

I also picked up my last-ever vegetable box from the farm today. And oh my do I have a plethora of flora in the kitchen. I must give some away, immediately. I think I will bring some for my aunt when I visit her with scones on Monday morning. Anyway, here is a slice of the produce in my kitchen. (Notice how WHITE it is outside. Father Winter is showing no mercy to Minnesota this year!)

December 19, 2008

create, generate, fabricate, build, construct, frame

Today I rediscovered the joy of creating. And it made me think of he joy God (or whatever you call yours) experiences everyday when it creates new people. All with their unique talents and passions.
Here's my day's work:

a brochure cover for the University

a mess

a photograph of a giraffe my friend Breanne got me while studying in Kenya, who lost hers, and made me think of how we don't notice how we take things for granted until someone loses something - like this woman's ability to smell

steamed rutabagas and mint butter

Tomorrow I think I'll create scones to bring to my aunt's house for breakfast Monday. And because I recently purchased a French coffee press who is dying to have a more European morning companion than a fried egg for the rest of the week. Perhaps these will do. Or these.

December 16, 2008

The Beginning's End

After I consumed one of my last carnival squashes of the season, I finished writing for last farm newsletter for the 2008 Community Supported Agriculture season. As I am now an intern at Heartland Restaurant, I wrote a story about how my farm and kitchen experiences have brought me on a food journey I'll never be able to turn back from. Here's a heavily-reduced, blog-sized version:

Walking down to the basement of Heartland Restaurant (where I am now a kitchen intern) I see a Summit keg and a Harmony Valley produce box, which to me are as good of a pair as peanut butter (chunky, of course) and jelly. Walking down to the warehouse at Featherstone Farm, I was more likely to see a tomato box and a large Igloo water container, filled with the Gasca’s beloved Gatorade. On the spectrum of dishing out $50 3-course meals to picking weeds in the squash-patch, these two polar environments have become one experience for me. That is- an experience of learning about nourishment, sustainability, and the earth’s flavors.

As I walk upstairs to the restaurant kitchen, the dishwasher, Salvador, says ‘hola’ and I’m challenged to scrape from the bottom of the barrel any ounce of Spanish skill I can muster. Salvador’s quiet, yet strong, character reminds me much of the restaurant itself. Heartland Restaurant is run by chef Lenny Russo in St. Paul, and is the type of restaurant that any small farmer in Minnesota loves. They buy as local as often as possible and not just produce. My duties have included cleaning mixed salad greens, peeling sunchokes, creating caviar butter, cleaning brussell sprouts, making liver mousse, peeling 50 cloves of garlic for coq au vin, making roux for chowder, chopping piles of herbs, and of course taste testing. I’m able to ask a lot of questions, as chefs are an obsessed bunch that love talking food, whose answers are payment in themselves.

My biggest fear was that my summer farm experience would eventually fade in my memory and remain like faint visions of a good dream as I had returned to the hustle-and-bustle of the Cities. Heartland saved me from this as it has made me see the importance of the farm and the final connection in the local food movement – to the plate. Some nights I see the produce go from the farm’s box, to the chef’s knife, into the waitress’s swift arms, and eventually to the guests’ bodies. Seeing this unfold before me has been one of the top 5 most gratifying experiences in my life, right behind tasting the pulp of a sweet hallow heirloom tomato this summer. While working at the farm, this restaurant diner/grocery shopper was an imaginary figure – the one who someday, would be eating and enjoying our produce, the fruits of our labor. To see this person in flesh and blood in front of me, who had no idea who I was, but was connected most intimately by food, justified and validated the difficulties of farm-work, seeing that it’s really going to people, real people, whose bodies live off your labor. As my restaurant experience grows, my farm experience deepens, because I see its relevance, importance, and physical/tangible results.

The relationship between a chef and a farmer can be seen in terms of an artist and his mediums. Who knew that the tops of leeks would be infused and blended with oil, forced through a chinois, to create Kelly-green Leek Oil for garnishes. The farmer grows a palette of flavors, colors, and textures to be used like art by the chef in the creation of dishes. The similarities between chefs and farmers are amazing. Versatility is what makes chefs and farmers so unique as they are very detail oriented (both Jack and Lenny know exactly what temperature their coolers must be so produce quality is upheld) but they are willing to roll-with-the-punches at the same time. Besides the necessity of meeting the bottom line, nothing is more important to the farmer or chef than quality. I’ve also found that chefs and farmers are usually spiritually motivated. (I do not use religiously and spiritually synonymously here.) I say spiritual and not religious because the ‘life-force’ it seems they believe exists with and in the food, and has nothing to do with the church. (Oddly enough, I had someone tell me that eating at Heartland is a near-religious experience!) It’s this magical element, a higher energy force, that they strive hard to pass for others to experience. To have ones livelihood depend on the earth’s bounty is one of extreme faith and risk that shows true trust and connectedness to the land.

I am so thankful to have immediate access to knowledgeable, influential, and soul-full people. Jack, Mary, Lenny, and Stephanie have given me more answers than a young foodie can handle, and I wish I were able to soak in all the information. From the flour / butter ratio for a roux to the ideal soil types for tomatoes, I’ve learned important information because these people are passionate about food and see the importance of educating the next generation of farmers and chefs.

Two women, one from Featherstone and one from Heartland, hold significance importance in leading me through this journey of learning. Mary (the farm’s CSA manager) and Stephanie (the restaurant sous-chef) have been monumental in supplying me with information, sharing kindness, and spreading enthusiasm. Mary and Stephanie are both quality fighters and do not settle for just anything. They both keep the businesses running by managing the day-to-day operations that make each place functional. These women have challenged my thinking on quality.

Heartland and Featherstone - a center of support for a belief or movement and a Minnesota township where Jack’s great-grandfather used sustainable practices to grow real food for people. The meanings of these names hold significant value for me as Featherstone Farm has become my heartland, the center of support for living well - a place where I grew-up in 3 months, redefined for myself what it means to be nourished and satisfied, appreciated simpler things, rediscovered the joy of community living, and interacted with life-affirming individuals.