Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Caramel Apple Pie!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

This pie is meant to be shared! It is a bit on the sweeter side but lovely with the homemade caramel.

1 recipe pie dough for two crusts
3 T flour , plus more for dusting
7 baking apples
3 T/, plus 1 cup granulated sugar
Juice of 2 lemons
8 T unsalted butter, cubed
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup Demerara sugar or brown sugar
1/4 t nutmeg
1/4 t allspice
1/4 t cinnamon
1/4 t salt
1/8 t black pepper
1/2 t flake sea salt
1 egg, lightly beaten with 1 t water

Make pie  dough and put in fridge for at least 30 minutes if not overnight.

1. Toss apples with 2 T granulated sugar and lemon juice; cover with plastic wrap and set aside 1 hour. Whisk 1 c sugar and 1/4 c water in a 2-qt saucepan over medium heat; cook, without stirring, until the sugar dissolves, 2-3 minutes. Add butter; bring to a boil. continue cooking until the mixture turns a deep red-brown, about 25 minutes or until a candy thermometer inserted in sauce reads 325. Remove from heat. Carefully add cream, stirring until sauce is smooth.

2. Heat oven to 375. Stir 1/3 c Demerara sugar with 2 T flour, plus nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, kosher salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Drain apples, discarding juices and add to bowl; toss to coat in spice mixture.

3. Roll out pie dough and place in the pie plate. For top crust cut 1 1/2 in. strips for lattice crust.

4. Sprinkle remaining flour and sugar over crust; tightly arrange apples over dough, mounding them slightly higher in the center. Pour caramel sauce evenly over apples. Sprinkle with half the sea salt. Lay three strips of dough vertically across the top of pie, about 1 1/2 in apart. Fold first and third strips in half upward. Lay one horizontal strip at pie's center. Unfold first and third vertical strips over it. Fold second vertical strip upward. Lay another horizontal strip below the first. Unfold second vertical strip over the bottom horizontal strip, then fold it again downward. Lay a third horizontal trip just above the pie's center and unfold second vertical strip. Pinch bottom crust and lattice edges together; roll toward the center of pie to hide lattice edges; crimp edges. Brush egg over crust, then sprinkle lattice with remaining Demerara sugar and sea salt. Bake until crust is golden and filling is bubbly, about 1 hour. Let cool completely before serving.
This recipe was shared in Saveur, November 2013 page 78.

Monday, January 27, 2014

True Wealth: Reflections from Practical Farmers of Iowa Annual Conference

The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life. – Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

And there came to me a spirit of wisdom. I reckoned riches as nothing beside her; I counted no precious stone her equal, because all the gold in the world compared with her is but a little sand, and silver worth no more than clay. – Wisdom of Solomon 7: 7-8

      This past weekend I attended the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) annual conference in Ames, IA. It’s theme was “Well Grounded” and it’s keynote address by Ricardo Salvador was “True Wealth: How Iowa can once again revolutionize agriculture.” Before I comment on my experience at the conference for those of you reading this who may not know anything about PFI here is a part of their vision statement: “Communities alive with diverse connections between farmers and friends of farmers. Places where commerce, cooperation, creativity and spirituality are thriving; Places where the working landscape, the fresh air and the clean water remind us of all that is good about Iowa.”
      I am still “savoring” my conference experience and I am not just talking about the great food we ate from many PFI farmers! Why is it in spite of the largest crowd ever I still walked away feeling so alive, vibrant and full of life? Here are a few insights to my weekend and what I would call a “mystical” experience as well as my own take on what “True Wealth” means to me. What I mean by mystical is experiencing God’s spirit at deep levels throughout the two days.
      I think Ricardo’s talk perhaps changed somewhat from his original title. He had us look at a question posed to him by a venture capitalist who was donating a significant sum of money to the Union of Concerned Scientists where Ricardo works. We looked at “What is the Problem with Agriculture? And can we fix it?” Ricardo looked at the life of Abraham Lincoln who asked how can we alleviate the drudgery of agriculture and meet the needs of our nation? So the Morrell Act and the founding of the National Academy of Sciences were formed during his administration amidst the on going Civil War. These two acts led to on going innovation and tremendous productivity in agriculture in the next 100 years. The “Problem” of agriculture is not can we produce enough anymore. We have shown that we can produce enough calories for everyone in the world, it is a matter of just distribution of those calories. Now the question is can we farm in a way that is sustainable and maintain our yields? His answer is yes and many PFI farmers are farming in ways that are and will show the world how to farm when the overarching agriculture system collapses. This is perhaps the model of true wealth he referred to in his title and how Iowa PFI farmers can revolutionize agriculture by showing the way.
      There were a number of “connections” I made with friends at the conference. Ricardo was one of them. I first knew him in 1980 when I was just starting as a research associate for the Agronomy Dept. at ISU and he was starting his masters degree. Though we seldom have been in contact over the years I find him to be a kindred/kind spirit/friend. I saw Cedar Johnson one of my former Growing Harmony Farm members first thing on Sat. morning and she so wanted to talk so I skipped the first PFI workshop. She had travelled from Eau Claire, WS.  to participate. She was also a former PFI staff member. I saw numerous former GHF members throughout the day but also saw three people who we had known via Nancy’s and my days at Iowa Peace Network in Des Moines that we hadn’t seen in years. Nancy also met a couple that she had known via her Goshen College days when she traveled to Haiti on a study abroad experience! All amazing encounters, yet I also conscientiously meet and greet new/first time attendees as I had certainly experienced that sense of hospitality at my first PFI conference in 1995.
      There have been a number of times that I will choose not to go to church after the conference. Part of it is I want to savor the experience and don’t want to ruin my sense of “communion”. But this weekend I was scheduled as a Eucharistic minister at St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames so Nancy and I went and in the interludes of silence during the service I savored the day and was grateful.
      The above reading of Wisdom was part of the scripture along with a reading from 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 that basically says God’s ways are foolish to humans. The Gospel reading was from Matthew 23:8-12 which is about “whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself with be exalted”.
      It was in the reading of these readings that I realized what it was that attracts so many people to PFI and why I have so many heartfelt connections with so many good people who are members and staff at PFI.
      By their very nature Christian communities are meant to be an alternative to the broader “worldly” culture if they are living out of the Spirit of the Good News. PFI by its own nature of fostering sustainable agriculture tries to be a life giving alternative to the broader agri-business culture. Yet the beauty of PFI is that it doesn’t live by any doctrines. There is an inherent freedom to move towards the Greater Truth via many, many paths. So, for example I seldom hear in any workshop/field day etc “This is the way you have to do it!” It is so often, “This is my experience, it may not work for you but try to figure out what works best for you! Learn from my failures not just my successes!” So often in formalized religion we insist on people being perfect. In a breakfast gathering Sat. morning I was part of a mentor round table discussion. One of the mentees said, “ I want to know about your mistakes.” What if beginning Christians were to ask the same question? Maybe there would be a better felt sense of humility.
      St. Anselm once said, “The definition of humility is truth applied courageously to self.” I think one of the founders of PFI, Dick Thompson lived this out and set the tone for all of us involved at PFI.
      I saw all the staffers of PFI following Dick’s example as being servant leaders. As facilitators at workshops it was never about them. They always brought it back to the PFI members to get their feedback for insight and further discussion.
      Wendell Berry touches on True Wealth in his above quote.  I know I left the PFI conference feeling like I was one of the richest people in the world. Within PFI there is incredible diversity of opinion and politics. It is one of the unique communities that has been able to hold those tensions together and I believe it is in part due to everyone’s felt sense of “freedom” within our community life that Berry talks about. Where do you find True Wealth?


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Year of Pies: Start with Best Crust Ever!

A Year of Pies

Pie Ingredients
I have been baking pies ever since I was in Bolivia working with the Mennonite Central Committee in 1983. It all started with banana cream pies with fresh home grown bananas growing in my back yard. (a fuller story about that will come in another post). I figure I have baked somewhere between 1,000 – 2,000 pies since that first one. Whose keeping count? I didn’t want to get into pie counting but this past August my dad, Bud, thought that I should be keeping track of all the pies I bake. So I compromised. I am keeping track of all the pies I bake in one year and plan to share the recipe of each different pie that I bake. So my pie year started August 1st near my b-day which is August 6th.

My first recipe will be a basic apple pie. We had a bumper crop from our 6 apple trees this year so I froze about 33 gallons of pie filling to last for the year! But before I share the recipe I have to start with the crust.

Is perfect pie crust possible?

Statistics are to baseball what a flaky crust is to Mom’s apple pie. —Harry Reasoner taken from Humble Pie, Musings on what lies beneath the crust by Annie Dimock
There have been a number of times at a church pot-luck or some other gathering when I hear a group of women talking about pie baking and someone will say, “Oh I just don’t do pies, crusts are just so hard to get right!” I just smile not saying a word but it is too bad because pie crusts are not that difficult!

Like any craft/skill/artistry it just takes practice and a few helpful hints, so here are mine.

Ingredients for one crusted pie (for two just double recipe)

1 cup regular flour
1/3 cup buttered flavored Crisco
¼ cup ice water
½ t salt
1 t powdered sugar

1. Mix salt, sugar and flour together well in a medium sized bowl.
 2. Cut in shortening with a pastry cutter (it has a handle with 4-5 thin wires coming out of it) It should be mixed well enough for the shortening to be in pea sizes or less.
3. Add ice water and mix well with a spoon until you can comfortably mold it into a oval ball.
4. Cover and put in fridge for at least one hour if you have time (I like to make my dough the night before so it is good and cold.

When you are ready to put the pie together roll out dough on pastry cloth or waxed paper. (I love my pastry cloth) You may want to add a little flour to the cloth and rolling pie so they don’t stick together.

Again if you have the time put the pie in the fridge again and let it rest for 30 minutes.

Ok here is a trick I just learned a couple of months ago thanks to the Nov. issue of Saveur magazine. Here is how the author Lesley Porcelli described the process from her article, “Miss American Pie” The conventional wisdom is not to overwork pie dough which is somewhat true as it tends to cause pie dough to be stiffer: “The key, was to develop enough glutens to allow the dough to hold together while keeping some lumps of butter intact. These would melt while baking, leaving behind air pockets—essential for a crust with layers of flakiness. The customary rest in the fridge that all pie recipes call for would be enough to relax the glutens that did form, preventing toughness.”

The salt and the sugar in the recipe helps draw some of the moisture out of the pie adding to the flakiness of the pie crust.

One can see a number of different recipes for pie crusts for lard, shortening, butter and different ratios between the shortening and flour. Anne DiMock believes and I confirm that the 1/3 ratio seems to work the best and is the simplest too.

Butter vs. shortening: I have tried it all and pure butter crusts and even half and half always seem to come out a bit stiffer than my Crisco (transfat free of course)

I also prefer to use ceramic pie plates. They seem to distribute the heat better than glass or aluminum. If you can it is worth investing in a ceramic oven proof plate that will handle going from cold to a hot oven better. Many ceramic pie plates should not be put in a hot oven as they could crack with use over time.

These last several months have shown me that the above suggestions do make a difference. My pie crusts have been the very best ever! So it is never too late to start no matter what age in life you find yourself. Don’t hesitate. To get from your first pie to number 1,768 you have to begin with pie number 1! Coming soon is the post for traditional apple pie.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Carrot is a Carrot…NOT!!!

      A number of years ago when I just started Growing Harmony Farm, (1997) I had an abundance of late fall carrots. (Boleros are a super sweet nutrient dense carrot harvested in the fall. The warm days and cold nights causes the starches to turn to sugars up here in the North Country causing them to turn into what seems like a totally different vegetable, super sweet, crisp and translucent) I didn’t have the market built up and reputation like I do now after all, those were the early days before “local” food became such an phenomenon. So I thought well maybe I’ll try the local HyVee grocery store to see if they might be interested. I was able to talk with the assistant produce manager. He didn’t seem all that excited but agreed to buy 10 pounds. I suggested he try one for taste. He replied, “A carrot is a carrot.” I about flipped but in reality in almost all grocery stores a “carrot is a carrot”. Most carrots in grocery stores are just one or two types of carrots called Imperators. They are long cylinders that have a woody inner core. They have to be woody in order for commercial growers to harvest them mechanically.
      That is the advantage that I have over large commercial operations. One, I live in the north that produces such sweet carrots and two I grow mostly Nantes type carrots are do have a core like all carrots do but they tend to be crisper and almost coreless. They are so crisp that they would break up if harvested mechanically. Mine are all harvested by hand. The most ever in a season was 7500 lbs! Most years were between 4,000-5,500 lbs. of carrots.
      One would think that with a nick-name like “The Carrot King” I would plan on promoting lots of recipes with carrots in them or that featured carrots. Ok I am going to say this up-front. I am a carrot SNOB! I have always said that the best way to enjoy my carrots is to eat them plain and enjoy their sweetness, crispness and classic carrot flavor (There is a chemical class called terpinoids that give carrots some of their flavor. That is why some varieties like Napoli, their flavor is very mild, almost bland while others are very strong and bitter.  The stronger the flavor the more terpinoids there are.) On Wed. Nov. 27th the Des Moines Register featured a Roasted Carrot recipe that I decided to try. They have been featuring simple 4-ingredient recipes this last month. So out of all the carrot recipes that I have tried in the pas,t this one far surpassed all the others with quality and taste.

      Here is the recipe:
1.     Wash and peel a pound of carrots. Cut them any way you want, just try to keep them roughly the same size so they roast evenly. I quartered mine.
2.     Peel and cut two medium sweet onions into roughly the same size pieces as the carrots. Put the carrots and onions on a cookie sheet or other baking pan.
3.     Whisk together two tablespoons olive oil and two tablespoons honey. Drizzle over the carrots and onions. Sprinkle the carrots and onions with dried thyme, kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.

4.     Bake at 450 F for 15 minutes. Stir them with spatula and bake for another 10-15 minutes until carrots are fork tender. The larger the carrots are cut, the longer they will take to roast.

The above picture includes roasted sweet potatoes and grilled lamb chops. YUM, YUM!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Homemade Cream of Tomato Soup...Mmmmmmm Good

When I was a child and for most of my life until I travelled to Guatamala before my senior year at college I would only eat one kind of soup Campbells cream of tomato! I suppose it was a kids thing like not liking the texture of noodles or rice. We really didn't eat that many soups in my household.

So in later years my diet expanded considerably eating many varieties of soups in Bolivia and El Salvador. Yet I still come back time and time again to cream of tomato soup. I suppose it has such strong connections to my childhood it is one of my true comfort foods.

In Bolivia and El Salvador I couldn't buy the canned soup so I would use tomato paste and milk adding a few herbs and lots of onions to spice it up a bit. There and at home growing up I often fixed popcorn to add to the soup instead of crackers. Try it, it is quite good! Supposedly President John F. Kennedy had it for one of his inaugural meals.

For some reason in recent years I did not look up a recipe for the homemade version so I would continue to use canned soup. I would eat the tomato/basil soup at Stomping Grounds and thought, "Gosh I wish I could make soup this good."

So when the Oct. issue of Saveur magazine arrived and had a recipe for Cream of Tomato soup I tried it and I was hooked. Fortunately there were still some tomatoes to can so I went to it to have an ample supply to make home made tomato soup any time I craved it, which is often!

4 lices thick-cut bacon, finely chopped
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
4  cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
3 tbsp. tomato paste
1 tbsp. flour
4 cups chicken stock
1 tsp tyme or basil
1 bay leaf
1 15-oz.can whole, peeled tomatoes in juice, crushed by hand
1/4 cup heavy cream

Heat bacon in a 4-qt. saucepan over medium heat, and cook until it's fat renders and bacon is crisp, about 15 minutes. Add butter, and increase temperature to medium-high; add garlic, onion, and carrot, and cook, stirring, until soft, about 10 minutes. Add tomato paste, and cook, stirring, until lightly caramelized, about 3 minutes. Add flour, and cook, stirring until smooth, about 2 minutes more. Add stock, thyme, bay leaf, and tomatoes, and bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly reduced, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat, and purée; return to saucepan, and stir in cream. Season with salt and pepper. Divide among bowls and dollop with sour cream and croutons as desired. Serves 4-6

Monday, November 11, 2013

Well Grounded

Well Grounded: a Carrot Reflection

Well Grounded: Deeply rooted to thrive during dry times

The upcoming theme for the PFI winter conference is Well Grounded. Here is a short reflection from this past growing season that connects with the theme.

When the growing season started this spring, I wondered if I would harvest any crops with the amount of rain I was receiving this year. But one hopes and continues to plant though it is tempting to give into despair.

I lost virtually all of my garlic crop to yellow asters disease. My potatoes were planted in a slightly low lying area so I thought I would lose them all and nearly did. Sweet potatoes too were planted in muck and that pretty much described the harvest: mucky, yucky the worst ever for me. I kept planting my carrots though and decided after two years of disaster of poor germination due to heat in July I planted my fall Bolero carrots early in late June and beginning of July. Sure enough I had good stands.

Who would have thought that someone would be turning off the faucet? From mid-June to mid-August. not a drop of water fell on my parcel of land here in Central Iowa? Yet the carrot tap roots kept going down and down for that moisture in our beautiful 4-5 feet of top soil. I have pulled out tap roots in the past that were 5-6 feet long! My organic soils have 6-8% organic matter and certainly that makes a difference for the top foot of soil. With one inch of rain in August and another inch the second week of September, then a few more small rains at the beginning of October my carrot crop not only survived, but thrived. I had one of the best carrot crops in my limited history here both in abundance and quality.

While on some level I consider it a miracle I do know that years of improving the soil makes a significant difference. It also proves that when one is well grounded/deeply rooted in place it is easier to survive the dry times in one’s life.