Sunday, June 24, 2012

Gardening 401: Advanced Independent Study in Farming

Happy Solstice a little late!  I hope that this summer is off to a great start for you, and that you're starting to get the best vegetables that summer can offer.  It's still a little early for tomatoes (at least in Wisconsin), but the zucchini have started to explode, and despite a rough spring the cherries are coming in.  I've also seen some farmers with broccoli, which seems a little early to me but I'm not complaining!

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to head out to the Rhine Center Vegetable Club two weeks ago, to spend a day working on their farm.  Some people, I recognize, may not consider this an "opportunity."  They might consider it in fact hard work, and me a sucker for doing it.  I disagree.
The farm.

As you might have noticed, I consider myself somewhat of an avid gardener.  I would say my garden plot is bigger than the average city dwellers, and it's supplemented with containers throughout my yard and house.  That being said, I was shocked at the amount of time that it takes to work a true farm when you're not using big machines, pesticides, and migrant labor.  I spent about the first five hours of my seven hour day thinning and weeding the beets.  Jess and Sam (the real farmers) were planting a new field that they hadn't used in the past, and they weren't sure how fertile it was, so they triple seeded the beets.  Unnecessary, because the beets came in just fine.  However, if the plants were just left as is, it would have meant that the beet roots would be too crowded, and the beets would not grow in as big round bulbs.  Instead, they'd just be roots.  So, we had to go down the lines, find patches of overcrowded beets, carefully select the plant that appeared to have the smallest root (which of course you couldn't really see), pull it up, snip off the root, and save the greens to go out in boxes to the CSA members.


Rows and rows and rows and rows (actually four rows) of beets

It was hot.  I actually picked far more beet greens than this, but they got snatched away faster than I could take a picture to keep them from wilting.

The rest of my time was spent harvesting and trimming kohlrabi, and picking kale.  The kale was actually my favorite, because the wilty and otherwise less than pretty leaves went over to the pigs for a snack.  I enjoy pigs, both in person and in my belly, and these guys were especially friendly.  They did, occasionally, appear to want to eat my feet, and I had to remind them that this was backwards - I eat them not the other way around.

Kohlrabi and Kale

Nom nom nom...

This is a pig who appreciates his veggies!

I'm sure that some of you are finding this disturbing.  These are happy, living creatures, snorting around eating their kale, and I'm thinking about eating them.  Cruel.  On the other hand, though, they do have a happy life.  And that happy life is paid for by my future consumption of them.  These pigs have, in my opinion, a much happier and healthier life than than their Wild Boar counterparts.  They have land to roam free, all the kale (and plenty of other goodies) that they can eat, fresh water, and medical care if needed.  And, they're not at risk of being hunted by tigers (wild boar are the main and preferred food source for tigers in the regions where they co-exist, and tigers have been known to chase boars for longer distances than other prey), wolves (a single wolf pack can consume an average of 50-80 wild boars annually, and in Italy wild boars have become so defensive against wolves that they have been known to attack domesticated dogs), and hyenas.  Baby boars are food for pythons, large birds of prey, large cats, dingos (dingos ate my boar baby!), large bears, and crocodiles. (Source: Wikipedia, of course!)

So if I don't eat them, someone will.
Like this guy.  He will eat the pig if I don't get to it first!

Seriously, though.  I'm not going to become a vegetarian.  I respect the views of people who are vegetarians, just as I respect the views of anyone who is making a conscious effort to think about what they eat - whether it be for their own health, environmental reasons, or moral reasons.  Thinking about what you eat is good.  I personally believe that meat is an important part of the human diet.  We are, omnivores by nature.  No, it is true that we do not need to be, but our digestive system is set up to process meat and vegetables.  Looking at people who eat the "Paleolithic Diet" or "Caveman Diet," they are mimicking the eating habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who were just that: HUNTER-gatherers.  (Please do not read this as my advocating for the Paleo diet.  While it's interesting, and again a good way to be paying attention to what you eat, I think it's a little bit silly to take in calories like early humans when we are not expending calories like them.  Every time you get in your car, don't hunt your own food, don't forage for your own veggies, etc. you are taking a step further away from what early humans did, so your caloric needs are going to be different.  Plus, the Paleo diet forbids alcohol, which is just inconceivable in my mind.)  What is important to me is knowing that the animal that sustains me was likewise sustained.  I have heard some of my more passionate vegan friends say that eating meat is slavery for the animals.  While I can see where they are coming from, I see it more as a symbiotic relationship.  I am as dependent on that animal for survival as they are to me.  I feed them, care for them, and water them, and in return they sustain me.  The quality of sustenance I receive from them is equal to the care that they receive.  Happy food just tastes better.

Most local farmers - at least the local farmers I know in Wisconsin - appreciate having people out to their farm.  This is their job, but it is also their passion and their art.  They are proud of it.  Farming is a dying skill, which is terrifying because without farmers there is no food.  But, really, how many of your friends wanted to be a farmer when they grew up?

These people might have wanted to be farmers when they grew up.  They're kick ass farmers now, regardless.

So, I highly recommend spending a day on a farm.  It's hard work, but I promise you will leave feeling satisfied.  If you get a CSA, often times the farmer will allow you to pay some of your share cost in labor.  Some even offer "Worker's Shares," in which your CSA share is paid for or supplemented by your commitment to put in a certain amount of time at the farm each week or month.  I took away from my visit a sense of accomplishment, a renewed energy for my passion in local food, a sunburned knee (just one...), and the knowledge that I was going to get a hell of a good sleep that night!  I also had the opportunity for a truly amazing lunch with my hosts, and got to learn more about the people who are kind enough to feed me every week. It's nice to realize your food comes from somewhere other than the shelves of a grocery store, or a truck before that, or a distribution center before that.  And it's also nice to think about the amount of work that goes into creating your food.  I know for me, it renewed my commitment to waste as little food as possible.  Those beet tops, the carrot greens, the green shoots the garlic sent up, those chicken livers and those pigs feet, they all took time and love and energy to create.  We should not be considering them garbage and tossing them away.

And, who knows, maybe you'll change your mind and want to be a farmer when you grow up!

Extra bonus recipe:

Early Summer Beet Green Risotto

  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large green onion, thinly sliced including tender green parts
  • 1 garlic scape, thinly sliced
  • 2 cups Arborio rice
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • salt and pepper
  • 3 cups thinly sliced beet greens
Bring the chicken stock to a gentle simmer.

In a large frying pan with high sides, heat the olive oil over medium high heat.  Add the onions and garlic, and saute just a few minutes until fragrant.  Add the rice and continue to cook, stirring constantly, for about five minutes.  The rice should be translucent with just a small white dot in the center.  Add the white wine, and cook, stirring constantly, until the wine has evaporated.  Reduce the heat to low.  Add the chicken stock about 1 cup at a time, stirring vigorously after each addition, and adding another cup when the rice is almost dry on top.  Season with salt and pepper.  Around the 4th cup you want to start tasting to see where your rice is in terms of doneness.  The rice should be just barely firm, and creamy (you may not use all 6 cups of stock).  Add the beet greens with the last addition of stock.

Now enjoy some pictures of happy chickens, pigs, and beets.  For the rest of my pictures (no, this is not all of them!), visit my Facebook page  Consider giving us a like while you're there!:


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Gardening 201: Advanced Container Gardening

Well, the garden is in and going strong.  The tomatoes are still small, but the rain and heat over the weekend has helped them shoot up dramatically from where they were just a week ago.  The squashes are taking over everything, as squashes do.

I'm fortunate to have some garden, but I certainly don't have as much room as I would like.  This is especially the case because I prefer big, viney plants that take up a lot of room like squash and melons.  So I also do a good deal of container gardening. 

As discussed previously, container gardening is a good choice for people with no room, or people like me who need to make more room because they're garden greedy.  It is also, in my opinion, a little easier than regular gardening if you're just getting started.  You don't have to build a garden, for one.  You don't have to turn over the garden, for two.  And third, it really cuts down on weeding.  Weeds grow in the spaces between the plants.  If your plants are in containers, it doesn't leave much room for weeds!

I tried a few new things for my container garden this year.  In the past, I've done beans and peas in pots just sitting on the stone edge of the main garden.  I especially like beans this way, because then I can just stick a tomato cage in the center of the pot and the beans will climb it.  This saves the time and hassle of building something for the beans to climb.

The rabbits appreciate some good non-GMO soy!
This year, I replaced my regular beans in a pot with edamame (soy) beans.  I haven't ever grown these before, and they were doing pretty well in their pot, but this morning I noticed a good chunk of them *update, make that all of them* had been bitten off.  I guess they're just as tasty to the rabbits as they are to me.  Side note, if you are going to grow edamame, make sure that you are buying certified organic seeds.  Generally I don't care that much about organic when it comes to my seeds, because I  know I'm not going to use any pesticides on the final product, but soy is one of the most genetically modified crop in the US.  93% of all soy in the US comes from GM plants, which have specifically been modified to contain a herbicide resistant gene taken from bacteria.  This means that most of the seeds on the market are also going to be GM.  You can't be organic and genetically modified, so I tend to stick to organic seeds in the veggies that are currently modified (the percentage is the percentage of US product that is modified - per my always reliable source, Wikipedia): Soy (93%), Corn (86%), Cotton/Cotton Seed Oil (93%), Hawaiian Papaya (80%), Canola and Rapeseed (93%), Sugar Beet (95%), and Zucchini (13%).  Starting in 2013, also be on the look out for Golden Rice.  Also, consider reading a little more about the California Right To Know Referendum, which will be voted on in the upcoming November presidential election.

Anyway, back to the garden!  I also wanted to plant regular beans, and since their pot had been given to soy beans, I had to find somewhere new to put them.

This year for my birthday, my father got me a small green house like contraption that I could use to start seeds.  It's very useful, except in the summer and winter when really I can't think of what to do with it.  And since it's permanently affixed to my back porch, I feel like it's taking up space and not doing any good.  So I decided to try to plant the beans in it.  My thought was, put them in a tray at the bottom, leave the door and top propped open so it doesn't get too hot, and let them climb up through and hold on to the shelves.

Yeah, not so much.  Not sure if it was too hot for them, they weren't getting enough light, or both, but the beans were not happy inside the green house.  So I pulled them out and am hoping that they will start climbing the railings on my balcony.  Also up on the balcony I have lettuce and spinach (greens do well in containers.  They also benefit from the fact that containers can be pulled into the shade, extending the life of your greens when it gets too hot in the summer.), carrots, radishes (which are done and I need to plant a second round of), hot peppers, kale, and quinoa.  I'm not expecting to get much quinoa, but whatever).  Last but not least, I also have pots with my herbs and my citrus plants, which are doing surprisingly well.  No flowers yet, but at least the plants are finally starting to grow since I got them after my citrus debacle last May.  I ended up just buying the plants individually on Amazon, and they've been tiny and slow to show any growth, but they're finally moving.
Herb and citrus garden.
Dwarf Lemon Tree.  This was a twig early this spring.
One thing that I've done the past two years now is grow my cucumbers on my trellis.  I have a large trellis in my back yard that supports roses on one side, and on the other side I've gotten cucumber vines to climb it.  I spent a lot of time last summer sitting under it, which was nice because it smelled both like roses AND cucumber!

Cucumbers starting to climb the trellis.  Ignore the weeds!
So, start thinking for next year.  Or, if you're considering growing some fall crops, but feel like you just don't have the time, consider a $5 25 gallon bucket of radishes or lettuce.

And, when the lettuce becomes overwhelming, try this recipe!  If you don't have any lettuce, head down and visit my buddies Jess and Sam at the Rhine Center Vegetable Club booth at the Westtown Farmer's Market on Wednesday.  Let them know I sent you, even if you're just stopping to say hi (it makes me look good!)

Lettuce Pesto
(Why not?  They make pesto out of spinach and arugula, why not try lettuce?)
  • 2 tbsp pine nuts
  • 2 tbsp garlic scapes,
  • 2 large hand-fulls of lettuce, washed and dried
  • 1 tbsp finely grated Parmesan cheese 
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil
Toast the pine nuts by heating a large, heavy skillet over high heat.  Add the pine nuts directly to the pan (no oil) and toast, keeping the nuts moving in the pan.  They will look like nothing is happening, and then they will start to smell a little nuttier and richer, and then they will start to lightly brown, and then immediately they will be burnt and ruined.  So watch them very closely, and as soon as they start to brown, remove them from the heat and pour them directly from the pan into a food processor where they can cool.

Meanwhile, coarsely chop the garlic scapes.  Garlic scapes are the top shoots of the garlic plant.  They taste to me both garlic-y-er and less sharp than regular garlic, all at the same time.  I think they are a good addition to this because they provide a strong garlic flavor without overwhelming the delicate flavor of the lettuce.  If you can't find any (you could check out RCVC!), you can use one large clove of regular garlic.  Add the garlic to the pine nuts in the food processor, and process in pulses until the nuts and garlic have a consistent texture of very small pebbles.  You don't want to go too far and have them start to turn into paste.

Add the lettuce (I needed to add lettuce in two batches, because it didn't fit in my food processor bowl.  This is perfectly fine.) and process until the lettuce is just broken down into small pieces. should still be able to see individual bis of lettuce, nut, and garlic.  Continue to process, adding olive oil in a slow stream.  How much you use will depend on what you are using your pesto for - a spread will get less oil, while a pasta sauce will need more.

The pesto will last in the fridge for a week or two, stored with a thin layer of olive oil poured over the top.  It can also be frozen in individual zip lock bags.  If you are storing it, add less olive oil and then add more when you are ready to use it.  Once you are ready to use the pesto, add the cheese and any more olive oil as necessary.

I served this with pasta as a side for some spicy tequila lime chicken lettuce wraps, topped with kohlrabi and radish slaw.  It was good, but in eating the leftovers I discovered that it was much, much better on cold pasta.  I would recommend this as a pesto for a cold pasta salad - it tastes fresh like lettuce, and who wants to eat warm lettuce?


Friday, June 15, 2012

At Your Farmer's Market This Week (6/15)

Headed off to the farmer's market tomorrow?  Don't know what you should be buying?  Here's your weekly "what's in season" update:

  • Leafy greens.  This includes lettuce of all types, spinach, arugula, chard, beet greens, kale, radish greens, etc.  Basically, if it's green and leafy, eat it.   You should be thinking to yourself, MAN, I don't need another salad!
  • Radishes
  • Lettuce and an edible flower!
  • Kohlrabi (if you don't know what to do with Kohlrabi, check out this ACTUAL award winning recipe.

  • Early squash, like patty-pan, yellow, and zucchini (although, these will cost even less in a few weeks when your garden having neighbors will be leaving baskets of zucchini on your front porch)
  • Peas
  • Garlic scapes (the green shoots of garlic)
  • Potatoes (tiny new ones!)
  • Strawberries (if you can find them; it's been dry)
  • This is not an alien egg.  It is a Kohlrabi!
  • Rhubarb
But mostly lettuce!

This is, unsurprisingly, what I got in my CSA box today, which is where the pictures came from.  If you want some produce exactly like this of your very, very own, go visit the Rhine Center Vegetable Club at their booth at the West Town Farmer's Market in Downtown Milwaukee.

Or, head out tomorrow and get yourself some lettuce and other greens of your choice.  Tomorrow is the first day of the South Shore Farmer's Market which, in addition to being one of my favorite farmer's markets, is also my CLOSEST farmer's market, which means it's my most often visited farmer's market.  It's also the only farmer's market thus far which is EMPLOYING me.  Yes, that's right.  Mark your calendars.  On August 11th, at 8:30 I will be "Cooking From the Farmer's Market."  Come visit me and learn how to cook with what's on season.  Or, better yet, come make me feel better about myself by having a crowd.
Farmer Jess says this is what real peas look like! 

Unless you're a creepy stalker type person.  In which case, my demo is on August 18th.

Monday, June 11, 2012

My first CSA box!

If you don't remember, or weren't following my blog then, or didn't read this post, I signed up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) back in March. I remember it was a really nice day - hot even - and I got all excited for spring and summer and food.  And then it got freakishly cold again.  And now it's hot.  Ahhh, Wisconsin!

Anyway, I received my first CSA box on Saturday, and it was very exciting!  I was actually supposed to pick it up on Friday, but apparently I don't know how to read an email.  Keep that in mind, the next time you're reading one of my blog posts and it doesn't make any sense - I don't even know how to read an email!

So, what did my CSA box have?  SHOCKINGLY, it had exactly the things I said you should be looking for at the farmer's market!:
  • Radishes
  • Baby Kale
  • Pea Shoots
  • Head Lettuce
  • Leaf Lettuce
  • Arugula
  • Spinach
  • Cremini Mushrooms (my spell check doesn't recognize "cremini as a word and wants me to replace it with reminisce. Now I think it's my spell check and not me who is borderline illiterate! 

 The thing that I already like best and worst about my CSA is that it's going to make me think really hard about my meal planning.  This is definitely more veggies than my husband and I usually eat in a week, and it's going to be a challenge to work them all in.  But I HATE wasting food.  So that means I have to sit back, look at what I have, look at what's going to keep, and see how I can work the rest in throughout the week - and not in just salads.

Every other month or so, I get this idea that Jeff and I are going to eat healthier by having one vegetarian meal per week.  It's a great idea, except afterwards the two of us always sit back, look at each other, and say "good, but could have used some meat!"  I would not make it as a vegetarian, and he won't make it on just salads.  Even meated salads.  Maybe one per week, but that leaves me with a lot of greens to use up.
Most CSAs are filled up now for this season, but there's always next season.  Also, my farmers (the Rhine Center Vegetable Club) will be selling their produce at the West Town Farmer's Market in Downtown Milwaukee on Wednesday.  If you work in Downtown Milwaukee and have not checked out this farmer's market, you totally should.  I don't think of it often, but this may have been my favorite farmer's market back when I could get to it.  Actually, in retrospect, I may have repressed how awesome this market was when my office moved from Downtown Milwaukee (10 minutes from my house) to Menomonee Falls (45 minutes from my house.

If you do work or live downtown, you should make sure you take the time to check out the West Town Farmer's Market.  It is on Wednesdays from 10am-3pm, at Zeidler Union Square (on Michigan between 3rd and 4th streets.)  Not only do they have a pretty awesome selection of produce there, perfect for mid-week shopping, but the lunch selection is always amazing - targeting all the Downtown workers.  I would recommend trying to get their either before 11 or after 1, though, because it gets pretty busy around lunch time!

Probably the trickiest/least common item in my box was the pea shoots.  These are the actual shoots that the peas grow off of.  Those of you who garden know that you plant your seeds, and then thin out the garden once the seeds start sprouting.  You could just throw those plants on the compost pile, or you could eat them!  They're good both raw (although I find they take a bit of chewing),  You don't want to over cook them, though.  They're traditionally stir-fried, but my favorite cooking method is to put them into something else that's hot - for example mix them into hot risotto or rice, or place them on top of a hot soup.

I started out with a noodle soup (I love a noodle soup!).  I took my own chicken stock and fancied it up with a little soy and fish sauce, and a splash of habenaro Tabasco.  I added some softened rice noodles, and topped it with just about every kind of vegetable I could find (I used snap peas, baby cucumbers, arugula, radishes, and (of course) bean sprouts) as well as a piece of grilled salmon.  Simple, filling, and amazing!
I know this looks like a salad, but it's actually a bowl of soup!

Friday, June 8, 2012

This Week at your Local Farmer's Market (6/9/12)

I have a friend who just happens to sit across from me at work.  On Monday, I heard the tail end of an exchange between her and another co-worker.  It went something like this:

"I always thought the farmer's market would be cheaper.  It is not!"

Intrigued, I asked "Well what did you buy?"  I was expecting to get into an exchange on how organic, soy free, cage free eggs are necessarily going to cost more than the crap you buy at the grocery store, simply due to the need for land to let the chickens roam on, and food to feed them that's not ground up other chickens, corn byproduct, and antibiotics.

"Tomatoes.  And they weren't even that much better than the ones I get in the store."

Later, while writing this (but certainly not at work, because I don't write my blog at work, because that would be wrong), I asked her if I gave her a look, and she replied "Yes.  You gave me a look that said 'Bitch Please.'  But in a nice way.  Or maybe it was that, 'Oh, honey, no.' look that your mom gives you."

Either way.

So I patiently lectured her on the fact that tomatoes were out of season.  These tomatoes were grown in someone's greenhouse.  They taste like the grocery store tomatoes, because, like grocery store tomatoes, they didn't have the chance to fully ripen in the hot hot sun.  Hot house tomatoes are good, especially after a long winter of NO tomatoes (I was very excited for my two tomatoes that I lovingly bought and carried home from the Madison Farmer's Market), but they are in fact not that much better than the ones at the grocery store.  And because they're a specialty product, they're going to cost more.

"You've got to buy what's in season," I told her.

"Well how am I supposed to know what's in season?"

That's a really good question.  As someone who always had some sort of a vegetable garden, I guess I just kind of know.  And then later, I worked in some nicer restaurants that thought a little bit about seasonal ingredients - although that wasn't really their focus.  You could start to see patterns of things coming in and out... although I'm sure we had asparagus in the middle of the winter.

It wasn't really until I started regularly attending farmer's markets that I got an understanding of what really was in season and when.

So how do you know?  Well, you've got a couple options:

1. Ask.  
Farmers markets don't need to be fancy to be awesome.
Ask the farmer.  Is this in season?  How was this grown?  Is it organic?  Do you use pesticides?  Where is your farm?  Did you grow this?  (You'd be surprised how many answer no to that last question.)  Once, there was a farmer who had tomatoes in the dead of winter.  I asked him if he was magic.  That is a direct quote.  His response was he had a brother who lived in Florida who happened to be visiting and brought him some cases of tomatoes.

2. Look around.
What does everyone else have?  Do all the farmers have asparagus, spinach, greens, snap peas, and garlic scapes?  Then that's what's in season.

3. Think about it.
I don't mean this in a mean, stuck up way.  If you're not used to thinking about where your food comes from and how it's grown, if you're just used to picking up whatever you want that night at the grocery store, regardless of the month or weather patterns, then why would you think about seasonality?  Our modern grocery store system makes it unnecessary...

But if you're interested in eating locally, and not eating the gunk that they put on grocery store produce, then think like a gardener.  Think about your garden.  Most things, when they come out of the ground, are green.  We talk about someone or something being "green" in the sense that they are brand new.  "Green behind the ears," meaning someone is lacking in experience.  Young food is green.  If it's got color, it probably started green and turned that color as it ripened.  So spring food is not going to have color... it's going to be green.  The bigger it is (generally) the longer it needs to grow.

Spring food is green, like what I listed above: asparagus, spinach and other leafy greens, snap peas, garlic shoots, been sprouts.  It's new and small.  Strawberries have color, but they are very small.  You may find beets with their colorful roots, but they will be small with delicate greens. The greens haven't had time to get big. 

Summer food has had time to ripen.  It's often big and plum.  It has had time to change color.  Summer is where most of the food lives.

Fall food is starting to get hard.  Or, sometimes, it's a second planting of spring food.  But we like our fall food to get hard because then we can store it in our root cellar (if we have one.)  The plant has had time to take the energy of the sun and build up a big heavy rind.  Fall food takes a lot of energy to produce.

4. Visit the internet.
This is my favorite solution.  And I hope you made it this far.

Here are the things that you should be able to find (in season) at your farmer's market this coming Saturday, barring no unforeseen weather disasters, and assuming you live in the greater Milwaukee area:

  • Arugula
  • Radishes
  • Radish Greens (don't throw out the top of your radishes.  They're really good sauteed, or fresh and thinly sliced in a salad)
  • Lettuce
  • Spinach 
  • Pea Shoots (again, sauteed or fresh!)
  • Snap Peas 
  • Baby beets 
  • Beet greens (sauteed or fresh... catching on to the pattern here)
  • New potatoes
  • Small onions
  • Mushrooms (basically always good)
  • Strawberries (the crop is not so great this year, so if you can find them... they might be a bit spendy)
  • Asparagus (it's getting to be the end of the season, so maybe not.)
  • You'll find other stuff, too, like cucumbers and tomatoes.  Knock yourself out, but know that they are out of season and will cost a little more. 
So, what do you do with all this?

As little as possible.

It's spring.  Things are new.  They're sweet.  They're fresh.  Do as little as possible with them.  If you're going to cook them, cook them lightly.  Or, better yet, don't cook them at all.

Here is a spring salad recipe that allows for a lot of variation depending on what you like and what you have.

Spring Vegetable Tuna Pasta Salad

  • 2 oz (about) dry pasta
  • 1 cup mixed spring greens
  • 1 cup assorted spring vegetables (such as been sprouts; snap peas; thinly sliced radishes, spinach, and radish greens; and julienned asparagus - fresh spring asparagus is amazing raw)
  • 2 oz (about) high quality canned tuna in oil - make sure you buy the good stuff.  There is a huge range of quality and flavor of canned tuna.
  • 1 tbsp of your favorite salad dressing
  • 1 oz (about) cheese of your choice
Cook pasta until it is al dente.  Carefully wash your greens (farmer's market greens often are dirtier than grocery store greens) and let them dry.  Combine pasta, vegetables, tuna, and salad dressing and mix gently.  Top the greens with the pasta salad, and then sprinkle with the cheese

Monday, June 4, 2012

June is National Dairy Month!

So, here's a strange fact:  I write a local Wisconsin food blog.  I have been writing a local Wisconsin food blog for over a year now.  And I've never written a post about cheese.  What's up with that?  I mean... Wisconsin... Cheese... what gets more local than that?  And it's not for lack of love.  I love me some cheese.  I love me some cheese almost as much as any other good Wisconsin cheese-head.  I have to say almost because... **looks around to make sure no one is listening...** I don't actually wear a cheese-head because I don't like football.  And because I'm classier than that.  Okay, maybe just the first one.

But, really, I would say I like cheese MORE than the average WI cheese-head.  Because I like lots of kinds of cheese, not just cheddar.  I like cheeses that make you go "hmm... is this cheese French?  Or is it spoiled?"

And, so, I find it bizarre and shocking that I have not yet written a post on cheese.

That will change today!

At the end of February, I got an email from a wonderful woman named Lori Fredrich, who writes for #MKEfoodies and Burp! Where Food Happens asking if I would be interested in:

"an incredible opportunity for you to learn more about Wisconsin's cheese making culture and taste a wide variety of award winning cheeses.  

Thanks to our partnership with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), we are thrilled to be able to offer you an exclusive opportunity to participate in an all inclusive, all expenses paid, tour of Madison area creameries"

Uh... yes?

I responded within 1 minute of receiving the email.  No exaggeration. 

The tour itself was amazing, and the Milk Marketing Board treated us like kings.  We started out on a rock star bus, a little too early in the morning for my taste, and headed into South Western Wisconsin.  I personally wasn't paying attention, but according to Google, our route should have looked like this:

My favorite part of the trip, if I'm being completely honest, was when we got pretty deep into South Western Wisconsin and everyone's phones lost service.  Imagine, if you will, a party bus of bloggers, completely ignoring the beautiful countryside, hunched over their phones: "I can't get a signal!  It says I have two bars, but I can't get a signal!" "I'm just getting an E.  What does that mean?  Where is my 4G?"  "I can't connect to Twitter! I can see other people's posts, but it won't let me post anything!  WHATEVER WILL I DO!!!"  And so on.   This was taken at a slightly calmer moment.

Oh, I should point out that the pictures that will be featured in today's blog post were not taken by me... as proven by the fact that I am in the above picture.  I know my strengths, and picture taking is not necessarily one of them.  It's cool.  A picture is worth a thousand words, but I can easily spew out 2000 words, so I'm good.  But, I had the opportunity to meet many of my fellow food bloggers, including a fine young man named Joe, who takes fantabulous pictures and who agreed to share them for a shout out.  Check out Joe on Twitter @EatingMilwaukee.  While I'm fairly certain I'm required by law to promote his food blog, what I would really like to promote is his photography.  Joe takes what anyone could consider to be the best Facebook profile pics around.  He took one of me at the cherry contest winner announcement party that I just tracked down and (surprise, surprise) made my profile picture!  Since his pictures are crazy better than mine, I will be featuring them here.  Check him out and show him some love!

So, I learned enough and took enough notes to write a pretty long book report.  It would be very educational, but not all that interesting.  So I'm going to try to stick to some of the key points:

1. The Chalet Cheese Co-Op in Monroe, WI is the only cheesery (I'm going to continue to use that term as if it were an actual word...) in the United States to make Limburger Cheese.  It employees two master cheese makers, one of whom is this guy:

Myron Olson knows a heck of a lot about cheese.  Especially Limburger cheese.  It's not easy to become a Master Cheese Maker.  In fact, we learned it takes at least 15 years.  15.  At least.  So don't try to throw down cheese with this guy.

I also learned here that Limberger Cheese gets a bad rap.  It's not so bad.  It's pretty good.  And fresh, it tastes an awful lot like feta, which was surprising.

2. Cheese curds eaten on the day they were made are quite possibly the best thing in the entire world.  You may have had them fresh and squeeky, but if you haven't had them at the cheesery, before they even had time to be bagged up, you have been missing out.  Within hours they had lost some of their squeek.  They were still the freshest I had ever had prior to that day about two hours earlier, but I have basically been spoiled for cheese curds forever.  Thanks to Hook's Cheese in Mineral Point, WI, for this valuable lesson.

I took this one.  Just thought I should clarify because it's clearly crappier than the rest.

3. If there is an opportunity for food OR a photo-op, I'm choosing the food every time.  This is my hand grabbing the fresh cheese curd that was pulled out of the cheese making vat just seconds before.  Note all the other food bloggers snapping pictures.  But I can use their pictures, and they can't have the first bite of cheese!

4. Even in the face of overwhelming foodie-ness, I am basically a child.

The final stop of our tour was Uplands Cheese Company, creator of Pleasant Ridge Reserve Artisanal Cheese.  The "Artisanal" in this name is well deserved.  Uplands raises their own cows and produces their own milk.  When the milk doesn't suit their very particular taste, they sell it.  If they don't make cheese, they don't make cheese.  It's more important to have the particular quality of cheese that they are looking for than to have cheese at all.  There was a lot of talk about letting the ingredients of the cheese speak for the cheese.  Not trying to find a flavor in the cheese, but trying to bring out the flavor of the milk, of the grass, of the clover in the cheese.  They spoke of using rotational grazing on their grass fed cows, shifting the cows from pasture to pasture, making sure they were always eating fresh shoots of grass, and never mowing the grass all the way to the ground, so the grass (and therefore the milk, and therefore the cheese) was always sweet.  They raise their own hybrid cows, which again produce milk to meet the needs of a perfect fat and protein mix for the flavor they're looking for.  Cheese wheels, once made, are given a salt rind, and hand washed as they age, being tasted again and again to find that moment when they are perfect.

It's basically everything I believe in.  Local.  Focused on the natural flavor of the food.  Not forcing, not pushing.  No over processing.  Just real food, given the time and attention it needs to be perfect.

And yet, as cheesemaker Andy Hatch (above) sliced us wedges of this beautiful, perfect, artisanal cheese that he had hand crafted, I couldn't help but make a 3rd grade joke.

Andy decided to make big wheels "for fun"

Testing the cheese leaves it pocked.

"Cutting the cheese" ;)

After the cheese tour came an amazing dinner at the Madison club, with cheesemakers Sidd Cook of Carr Valley Cheese and Bob Wills of Ceder Grove Cheese.  Bob Wills is also responsible for the Clock Shadow Creamery; a project which deserves (and will get) it's own post at some point in the future.  The next day we visited the Madison Farmer's Market, and had brunch at Graze, a Madison restaurant focusing on local food.  I'm kind of weird when it comes to brunch, so I was happy to have the ramen.  Man alive do I love me a good bowl of noodle soup!

Especially when trying to break up a belly full of cheese.

Food bloggers, full of cheese and ready to go home.