Archive for the ‘Farms, Farm Stands, and Farmers Markets’ Category

Figging Around at Dancing Bear Farm

Friday, February 3rd, 2017

A black fig ripens on the tree at Dancing Bear Farm in Leyden, Massachusetts. Courtesy of the Recorder/Paul Franz.

The harvest season is over in Western Massachusetts—although local produce still abounds: apples, cabbages, squash. At this time of year farmers have the mental and physical energy to plan for next year. Best of all, they find time to dream.

At Dancing Bear Farm in Leyden Tom Ashley and his wife, my fellow journalist Trish Crapo, are dreaming of something they will call the figtorium.

The figtorium will be a greenhouse designed to accommodate Tom’s growing fig harvest. Dancing Bear Farm has been in business for 25 years, but Tom grew his first figs only eight years ago.

When I spoke recently with the couple, Tom explained that his love of figs began in the fall of 2008. He was inspired by a longtime customer named Marie. (He didn’t think she would want her last name reported.)

A teacher who lives in Brooklyn, Marie has a second home in Leyden. She has been a loyal customer of Dancing Bear since the farm started in 1981.

“She is Italian American and lives in an Italian neighborhood,” Tom told me. “Everybody there has their fig trees and their grapes and a small garden [of plants] that they brought from the old country.

“We’ve had a very nice relationship over the years of sending stuff home with her in the fall, garlic for her neighborhood. Eight years ago she brought me four dead sticks and said, ‘Here, put these in the greenhouse, and see what happens.’

“At that point I knew nothing of figs. They sat around the greenhouse for a couple of weeks.”

He received a phone call from Marie, urging him to plant the sticks.

“I said, ‘Yeah, sure. Figs. All right, Marie,’” Tom remembered.

Tom Ashley with some of his figs.

The sticks went into the ground. Two of the four took root, combined themselves into one large tree, and began producing fruit the following spring. The tree is still going strong today.

Tom said he was impressed when he tasted the fruit. “I had never experienced anything like that before,” he said. “I’d had dried figs or Fig Newtons…. It was very different from any other fruit. Very sweet.”

“Sweet but light,” chimed in Trish Crapo.

Tom discovered that his fig tree grew quickly. Soon it hugged the ceiling of his plastic greenhouse. “I had to prune the tree. It just took off like a sumac,” he recalled. “Whatever [cuttings] I took off the tree, I thought, ‘Those will grow, too.’”

He placed the cuttings in pots. “The next year, I had more figs and all these trees growing in pots.”

Soon Tom began doing research about fig trees. Native to many areas of the world and cherished particularly in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region, figs are an ancient plant.

They are also a healthy fruit—full of antioxidants. They contain ingredients that can help fight cancer, obesity, osteoporosis, and many other diseases.

“A fig may have been the fruit in the Garden of Eden, not an apple,” Trish Crapo informed me. In the warmer climates of figs’ native habitat they grow profusely outdoors.

I had never seen figs growing so I enjoyed visiting Dancing Bear Farm in late October to see what all the fuss was about. Tom Ashley’s fig trees were then lush and tall. The winding wood was pleasing to the eye, and the large leaves were highly decorative.

“No wonder they used to wear them back in the old days,” Tom told me with a smile.

He picked a fig off a tree for me to taste on the spot. Figs are unusual in that they don’t flower. Their flowers are actually the inside of the fig. My fig tasted sweet and rich. The skin, fruit, and seeds provided a nice combination of textures.

Tom and Trish first met at Hampshire College, where Tom managed the coop and was among the first people to think of starting an organic garden on a college campus.

“We already valued sustainability and local agriculture in 1980,” Trish said proudly.

Trish arranges figs on a plate.

After college the two looked for a plot of land of their own. They fell in love with the land that would become Dancing Bear Farm, which has a spectacular view of the Pioneer Valley. Soon they set down literal and figurative roots.

Looking forward, Tom sees his fig cultivation and the planned figtorium as key. He admitted that he could repair his current plastic greenhouse instead of constructing a new one. He sees defects in this plan, however.

“The greenhouse isn’t quite big enough for the trees, and it’s a little tight on the sides,” he observed. “Why would you put new soles on a pair of shoes that didn’t really fit you?”

With the figtorium—a larger, non-plastic greenhouse—he will be able to accommodate his fig trees and expand his fig crop. He hopes that figs will become one of three or four strong crops on which he can concentrate in future.

This concentration will strengthen his crops and give him more time to do the educational outreach he has already begun through newsletters to customers.

At the moment he sells both figs and fig trees. Eventually, he would like to work with etymologists to do research on the fig wasp—a miniscule insect that helps figs spread in the wild. He would also like to experiment with farming methods that might help fig trees survive in colder weather.

Tom hopes that the figtorium will make his life richer, more interesting, and less physically stressful.

“I want his life to be a lot easier,” Trish said of her husband. “He works really hard.”

Meanwhile, Tom takes pride in his figs and fig trees. Several years ago, he told me, his friend Marie brought him a new fig-tree cutting from friends who were visiting from Sicily. When the friends returned to the United States a couple of years later she brought them to Dancing Bear Farm.

The friends don’t speak English so not a lot was said. Nevertheless, Tom informed me, they managed to give him two thumbs up when they saw the tree their cutting had produced.

“We communicated back and forth our mutual respect. Marie told me later that my tree was doing better [than the one her friends had] back in Sicily,” he recalled.

“Somewhere along the line I seem to have developed a fig thumb.”

Tom Ashley and Trish Crapo frequently experiment with fig cookery. “In a way we’re in a unique position that most people are not in,” Trish told me. “We have too many figs. It’s a wonderful challenge.” They report that even the leaves can be used in cooking, to wrap around foods.

The pair gave me some figs to play with—and I remembered that years ago my graduate-school roommate Alice Gagnard and I used to receive care packages of fig jam from her mother in Alexandria, Louisiana.

I don’t have Louise Gagnard’s recipe—she unfortunately died while I was doing research for this article—but when Tom Ashley gave me some frozen figs I concocted my own version of the jam as a memorial tribute to Louise. She always had a pot of coffee on the stove and a smile on her face.

Louise raising a glass of sparkling cider. (Courtesy of Alice Gagnard Kendrick)

Fig Jam inspired by Louise Gagnard

Ingredients:

6 cups chopped figs, packed
4-1/2 cups sugar
the juice of 1 large lemon (if you really love lemon flavor, use the zest as well)
a dab of butter

Instructions:

In a 4-quart Dutch oven combine the figs, the sugar, the lemon juice, and the zest if you are using it. Mash the figs a bit with a potato masher. (They don’t have to be completely mashed.) Allow the mixture to sit for at least 1/2 hour to enable the figs to juice up a bit.

Stir again, turn on the stove, and bring the mixture to a boil, adding just a little butter to minimize foam. Reduce the heat and simmer the jam, stirring from time to time, until the jam becomes thick and starts to gel.

Test for gelling by using a candy thermometer (the mixture should come to 220 degrees Fahrenheit or a little under) or by inserting a cool metal spoon in the jam. When the jam comes off the spoon in sheets it is done.

Turn off the heat and stir the jam for five minutes to make sure that the figs are evenly dispersed throughout. Ladle the jam into sterilized jars, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes. (If you don’t want to process the jars, you may keep the jam in the refrigerator for a couple of months.)

I’m enjoying my fig jam!

Alice’s Corn Fritters

Tuesday, August 30th, 2016

frittersweb

During this golden season it can be REALLY hard to visit a farm stand and purchase just one ear of corn. I always end up buying at least two ears of this tempting vegetable—and sometimes four, six, or even 12! Consequently, the Tinky fridge usually features leftover corn in late August.

I have made much more complicated fritters in the past; in fact, I posted a fancier recipe here on this blog a few years back. When I was getting ready to cook on TV last week, however, I wanted something simple.

Luckily, my neighbor (and occasional musical collaborator) Alice Parker offered me the perfect recipe. It concentrates on two main flavors—the corn and BUTTER. You do have to be careful to keep the butter from melting, but your vigilance pays off.

The fritters disappeared fast on Mass Appeal, where I wore a yellow hat to pay tribute to the main ingredient and also to my late mother. (The hat belonged to her.) I wish I had a photo of her wearing it—but at least I have a photo of Alice! Here she is (on the left) getting ready to play the piano at our most recent concert, “Love Walked In.”

Alice and Estherweb

The Fritters

Ingredients:

2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt (plus more if you like!)
freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup flour
2 cups kernels from barely cooked corn
butter as needed for frying (up to 1/2 stick—perhaps even a little more)

Instructions:

Separate the eggs. In the bowl of an electric mixer beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. In a medium bowl whisk the egg yolks until they turn a paler yellow. Whisk in the baking powder, the salt, and the pepper. Using a wooden spoon stir in the flour, followed by the corn. Gently fold in the egg whites.

Warm a frying pan or griddle, and melt the butter. When it is nice and hot use a cookie scoop or spoon to form the corn mixture into little clumps, and fry them on both sides until brown, turning once. The mixture will be free form but delicious. Serve the fritters immediately by themselves, with sour cream and dill (my friend Betsy’s idea!), or with maple syrup. Serves 4.

And now the video. Note how fluffy the fritters become!

Kritters!

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

okraweb

Most of us up here in Yankeeland have very few opportunities to eat fresh okra since this vegetable prefers temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. It has begun creeping into farm stands just south of me in the Connecticut Valley in the last couple of years. The Valley is sunny and warm (well, warm for New England!).

I purchase okra at the Bars Farmstand in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Although it’s a bit of a drive for me, I love the Bars Farm. It has the most extensive variety of sweet and hot peppers anywhere around. And like many other local farms it practices integrated pest management; its owners are responsible stewards of their land.

Many people object to the “slime” component of okra. I have found that when it is fried it doesn’t emit much slime. My friend Michael Collins grills it, and I hope to try that method soon. Meanwhile, here I share the recipe for the okra fritters (a.k.a. kritters) I have made twice now.

The size of the kritter depends on your taste. The kritters are crunchier (and of course more fattening) if you cut the okra into tiny pieces—say, 1/3 inch long. When I made them earlier this week, I just cut each piece of okra in half after snipping off the ends. This method results in a little more okra flavor.

Either way you make them, you will doubtless convert non-okra lovers with these treats.

Okra Fritters

Ingredients:

10 pieces of okra, with the ends trimmed off, sliced either in half or into several smaller pieces
enough buttermilk to cover the okra
1/2 cup cornmeal (this is approximate; just dump some cornmeal into a bowl)
2 tablespoons flour (ditto)
2 teaspoons Creole seasoning
canola oil as needed for frying
salt (if needed)

Instructions:

Wash and dry the okra. Place it in a bowl, and cover it with buttermilk.

In a flat bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, flour, and Creole seasoning. Dip each damp piece of okra in this mixture.

Cover the bottom of a heavy skillet with oil. Heat the skillet until the oil is quite hot. Quickly fry the okra pieces in the oil, turning once.

Remove the okra pieces to a paper-towel-covered plate. Taste one. (Try to stick to ONLY one!) If the kritters need salt, sprinkle a little on top.

Serves 2 copiously as an appetizer or side dish.

kirttersweb

A Family Meal at Diemand Farm (try it for Rosh Hashanah!)

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

It would be hard to imagine a more beautiful or serene location than that of Diemand Farm. A gently sloping 175-acre property on Mormon Hollow Road in Wendell, Massachusetts, the farm sells chickens, turkeys, and prepared foods. It also offers seating for a few lucky customers.

When I visited the farm a few weeks ago, co-owner Annie Diemand was getting ready for her wedding three days later.

Nevertheless, she took the time to give me a tour of the property and to share a meal with me. That meal, prepared by part-time cook Doreen Stevens, featured a simple yet elegant chicken dish that mingled sweet and sour flavors. Family members, neighbors, and farm hands stopped in to share the feast.

Diemand shares ownership of the farm with her siblings Faith and Peter. Each has an area in which he or she makes decisions, although all three pitch in to help the others whenever needed. Annie Diemand is in charge of the kitchen.

The farm first came into the family in 1936 when the Diemands’ grandfather purchased the property. The Diemand siblings’ parents married in 1940. Their father worked in area factories for several years to supplement the farm income until around 1950, when the farm started to sustain the couple and what eventually proved to be 11 children.

The family began by raising meat chickens. “I remember standing next to my mother cleaning out the gizzards,” Annie Diemand told me as we ate. “That was my job.”

In the mid-1960s the economics of chicken raising made the family change over from meat hens to laying hens. As time went by the Diemands expanded into selling hay and raising a small number of cattle for beef.

In 1989 they tried raising turkeys, starting with 500 birds. This year they plan to raise over 5000 turkeys. I myself have ordered a Diemand turkey for my Thanksgiving table, and I know I’m not alone in my area.

Customers began to ask about purchasing chickens to cook, and the family returned to meat chickens, although the Diemands continue to sell eggs. They also continue to diversify.

Baby Chicks at Diemand Farm

Faith Diemand has added sheep (for food and for wool) to the farm. Peter Diemand is working on a sawmill. Another sibling a few miles away has begun raising pigs and strawberries. A wind turbine is in the works to help power the farm.

Until three years ago the farm’s official store was a self-service enterprise. Now it has regular hours, a cash register, and tables for eating. Popular items to take out and/or eat on the spot include beef shepherd’s pie, pot pies, a variety of soups, and baked goods.

“We have individuals who come every single morning for a cup of coffee and a muffin,” said Annie Diemand. She estimated that from ten to 30 parties stop in each day for food.

Doreen Stevens, who has been working for the Diemands for over a decade, acts and clearly feels like family. She cooks in the roomy farm kitchen three times a week. A former chef at the local technical school comes in one or two days a week to supplement her culinary efforts and those of the Diemand family, who pitch in as needed.

The food is hearty, relying in general on the natural flavors of the Diemands’ poultry and herbs from the garden. “My theory in the kitchen is that nine out of ten times simpler is better,” Stevens told me. The chicken dish below reflects that philosophy. It features few ingredients but packs in a lot of flavor. It would be delicious for Rosh Hashanah, when honey chicken is a perennial menu item–but it’s delicious at any time.

Annie Diemand (left) and Doreen Stevens in the Diemand Farm Kitchen

Diemand Farm Honey Ginger Chicken

Ingredients:

1/2 cup grated fresh ginger (watch your knuckles as you grate!)
1/4 cup finely chopped garlic
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup water
1 cup native honey (Doreen Stevens uses Warm Colors Apiary’s Deerfield Wildflower flavor)
5 to 6 pounds Diemand Farm fresh chicken pieces
chopped herbs as needed for garnish (parsley, chives, and a little thyme)

Instructions:

Place the ginger, garlic, soy sauce, water, and honey in a small saucepan. Heat the mixture just enough to melt the honey and combine all the ingredients. Cool the liquid briefly; then put it in a bowl with the chicken pieces. Marinate the chicken in this liquid in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 hours, or overnight if possible.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the chicken, skin-side down, in a large roasting pan. Pour the marinade over it, and cover the pan with foil. Bake the chicken for 3/4 hour.

Remove the foil, turn the chicken over, re-cover the pan with foil, and roast for another 3/4 hour. Remove the foil, and put the pan back in the oven. Brown the chicken for 10 to 15 minutes.

Remove the chicken to a platter, and cover it to keep it warm. Strain the pan drippings through a fine sieve into a saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the drippings are reduced in half to make a sauce. (When I tried the dish I didn’t bother reducing the sauce, and it had plenty of flavor!)

Pour half of the sauce over the chicken and serve the rest on the side.

Sprinkle the chopped herbs over the chicken just before serving. At Diemand Farm this dish is usually served with barley (boiled and tossed with butter and herbs) or brown rice. Buttered noodles would work well, too.

Serves 6 to 8 farmers. (Diemand Farm portions are large!)

Easier Than Pie Chicken

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

 
The phrase “easy as pie” sometimes bothers me. I don’t think pie is super difficult to prepare. It does take some time, however, to make, chill, and roll out a pie crust. So I don’t think pie should be the standard for ease.
 
And I do love ease. As readers who follow other my blog, Pulling Taffy, know, most of my time these days is taken up with care for my elderly mother, who suffers from dementia.
 
One of Taffy’s quirks at this point in her life is that she really HATES to be alone, even for a few minutes. So my dinner-prep time is limited.
 
This chicken casserole suits me perfectly. I can chop the onion while chatting with her. The only time I have to be in the kitchen is the five minutes or so it takes to brown the chicken, a task I try to accomplish while my mother naps.
 
The recipe was suggested by a vendor I met at the farmer’s market near mein Alexandria, Virginia, last week. Lily Castaño is the creator of Salsa Las Glorias, a range of salsas that are in indeed glorious. I bought way too many of them!
 
Perhaps I should feel guilty about cooking with a pre-made product. When tomatillos come into season, I can always make my own salsa verde as I did in a previous recipe for Salsa Verde Pie.
 
Meanwhile, Lily’s super-fresh salsa is a far cry from a can of soup. And her chicken idea (roughly translated by me) is delicately flavored yet satisfying. The sour cream adds just a little extra smoothness.
 
The dish is highly flexible. Use leftover chicken if you like, and/or make it with unboned unskinned chicken for extra moisture. (Just make sure you cook the chicken through!) I seem to remember Lily sometimes used herbes de Provence; I might try a little cumin next time. And when I heated up leftovers the other day I threw in some ripe olives, which added color (yes, black is a color!) and flavor.
 
Please note that although this recipe served my mother and me plus our dog you may want to add more chicken. Only you know whether your family members routinely eat a whole or a half chicken breast for dinner.
 
Lily’s Salsa Verde Chicken
 
Ingredients:
 
1 boned, skinned chicken breast
a small amount of olive oil for browning
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup salsa verde
1/2 medium onion (a sweet onion is particularly nice in this), chopped
sour cream as needed
 
Instructions:
 
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
 
Slice the chicken breast in half along the vertical edge so that you have two thin cutlets with the same shape as the original breast.
 
In a medium pan over a medium-high flame heat the oil until it shimmers. Brown the cutlets briefly on both sides, adding a light amount of salt and pepper.
 
Transfer the cutlets to a baking dish. Cover with the salsa and then the onion pieces.
 
Cover the baking dish and bake for 45 minutes. Serve over rice and garnish with sour cream. 

Serves 1 to 2.