Poached Quince and Cranberry Crisp

It's official, I've regained my cooking mojo! It's been a long and busy autumn, and I was beginning to think that I'd never get back into my kitchen in a serious way. Maybe it was the cold weather that inspired me, or the snow, or Christmas, or the fact that work has gotten back to a predictable pace, or maybe it was these beauties.......

Quince! These are neither local nor organic, which breaks some of my rules, but they are seasonal, and I was anxious to try them, so I went with it. I think that they could be grown here, there's just no one growing and selling them in Dane County.

We're trying some new and different things in the Co-op produce department - this is one of them. My previous experience with quince was limited to keeping one in my car as an air freshener - the fruit is extremely fragrant and gives a car or a room a wonderful fruity aroma reminiscent of Juicy Fruit gum (or so says Stanley).

I was under the impression that quince is a hard and bitter fruit that needs cooking to be palatable. We tried a raw one at work and we were all surprised: It was interesting and very edible. The flavor was good - sweet, with notes of both apple and pear. The texture of the raw quince was fascinating... spongy, almost like eggplant. Maybe we just have really good quince, but it was good enough to eat without cooking at all. The sponginess of it was intriguing to me. It made me think that it would soak up flavors just like eggplant does.... I just had to try cooking with it!

Luckily I had a holiday party to go to this weekend and everyone had been asked to bring a dish to pass. The quince seemed the perfect thing. After some researching online, I decided to poach them, mix them with cranberries and bake it all into a simple crisp.

I peeled and cored the quince, quartered them, and poached them with their peels, water, sugar, orange peel, cloves, and a little ginger. Wow, did this make the house smell good!

As the quince cooked I mixed up a simple crisp dough. I am not the world's best baker, but crisp dough is something I can do blind. Brown sugar, oats, chopped pecans, a little flour, cinnamon, salt, and just enough butter to get the right texture.... the finished product is a crumbly sweet dough that's just amazing. The hardest part is not eating it all raw!

After about 30 minutes, the quince were nice and tender. I kept a quart of the syrup, which has a wonderfully floral clovey gingery quincy flavor.

I cooked a pint of cranberries in a little bit of the quince syrup until they "popped", and then mixed the quince back in to make this beautiful fruity mixture.

Putting a crisp together is one of the simplest things to do. Fruit on the bottom..........

.... then the crisp topping.

45 minutes at 375.

Fruity spiced quince, tart cranberries, sweet crunchy topping..... perfect.

I'm sorry I don't have a recipe for this dish.... I never ever measure the ingredients of the crisp topping, so I really don't know what the recipe is. It's all about getting the right texture. One of these days I'll figure it out. The secret is lots of butter, lots of sugar, and the chopped nuts.

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Thanksgiving and Culture Wars

Mostly I'm posting today to give you this link to an article that came out today in the Washington Post.

I'm most definitely one of those "liberal elitists" refered to in the article, but I like to think that I'm a little more down to earth than some (I was an anthropology major after all!). There are people who just don't identify with all my fuzzy feelings about local and organic food. For these folks, the economic argument is a good one: Local food means more of our dollars stay in our local economy, giving jobs to our friends and neighbors.... I also think that it's useful to emphasize just how all-American meat and potatoes local cuisine can be. It doesn't have to be hoity-toity.

I also wanted to share this picture from Thanksgiving. Since I've been working to much recently, and I had to work on the holiday itself, instead of being intimately involved in cooking this year I brought a simple hour devours platter. Ida Red apples from Ela Orchard, Lucious pears from Future Fruit, Potter's crackers, aged Marieke Gouda, Hook's Blue Paradise, French Delice de Bourgogne (not local, I know, but oh my god this cheese is good!), Carr Valley apple smoked cheddar, and a pepper salame from Columbus (again, not local, but I needed a good salami to balance the cheese and fruit). I garnished it all with Tat-Soi from Tipi Produce, which is a beautiful green that got as many comments as the cheese, crackers, and fruit.

After enjoying this spread, we sat down to a beautiful Thanksgiving meal. Dave got two small turkeys from Jordendal Farm and smoked them to perfection. Mom made stuffing, garden beets, great Grandma's creamed onions, a garden salad (yes, she's still picking lettuce and spinach from the garden!) a pecan pie, and a pumpkin pie (from a real pumpkin); Ben and Erica brought mashed potatoes, a really yummy squash dish, a wonderful raw cranberry sauce, and a peach crisp.

It felt weird to be so disconnected from the preparation of the meal, but it was amazing none the less. It had been a while since I'd had a chance to hang out with the family... it felt good.

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I'm a Lucky Girl

I've been working like a dog lately. My new job as produce manager at the new Willy Street Co-op in Middleton has kicked into full gear. We opened last Monday, and it's been 2 straight weeks of extra long days that start at 4:30am... yesterday was my first day off in two weeks and I found that I could do nothing but lay on the couch watching episodes of Iron Chef. Exhaustion like this for me usually translates to lots of dinners out and not much energy to cook.

Except now I've got my sweetie. Stanley has been the best of all boyfriends through all of this, and has created more than a few amazing home cooked meals for his tired lady. A hearty Italian style chicken breaded and then coated with marinara and baked with pasta and cheese; this "I love you" meatloaf with mashed potatoes and cabbage slaw; venison sausage, bacon, and tomatillo crockpot chili..... I am a lucky girl indeed.

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Putting the Gardens to Bed

We've come full circle. Last weekend, Mom, Dave, Meg, and I cleaned up what was left at the Main Street garden. Everything that can be killed by frost has been killed and the spinach has been cut. All that remains is a nice row of carrots and beets.

Given the Republican victory in the Wisconsin governor's race (boo!!), it's looking like the high speed rail from Madison to Milwaukee is not going to be built after all. I'm a big supporter of rail, but the proposed route was right through the rail corridor where this garden sits, so part of me is happy to see it not happen. The other part of me is very very sad to see our new governor give away the federal money that was granted to our state for rail.... but that's another story.

Mom taking down the bean trellis.

I planted this bed in garlic for next season. It's mulched in with autumn leaves. They should protect the garlic cloves over the winter and eventually compost back into the soil. Leaves are a great source of fertilizer.... I've used a lot of them this fall as you will see....

but first, a chicken break! The girls are all molting and looking scruffy as heck. The eggs have pretty much stopped for now, hopefully they'll be done soon and be back to their beautiful selves.

Home sweet home. Stanley raked all the leaves from the yard into the garden beds (thanks sweetie!). I know most people say you should run the lawn mower over the leaves first, but I'm experimenting to see what happens if we don't. Hopefully they'll break down over the winter and I can turn them back into the soil in the spring.

My plan next year is to extend these two little beds so that my little herb garden goes all the way to the sidewalk.

My four newly planted raspberry canes are the back of this picture, against the fence. The plan for next spring is to dig up some ground by the driveway to put in a strawberry bed... a big one!

This sunny strip between the sidewalk and the street will be a raised bed veggie garden next year. It's right in front of the house, but it's technically city property. Lots of people in Madison use this area for growing things..... there is a small chance that the city will decide to come dig it up, but I'm not too worried. That usually only happens when the road gets redone, and ours is relatively new. It is a nice sunny spot, and should make a beautiful garden!

It's hard to see in this picture, but the far end of the side yard is mulched in with leaves. I have some herbs already planted in here, and I plan to use the rest of it it for colorful flowers and flowering herbs.... things I'm not too worried about getting trampled by certain people playing baseball, football, or other such games.

Next spring will be the first one I spend at my new house, I can't wait to dig up some new ground! But now it's time to buckle down for winter....

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Farm Tours

Along with my new job came the opportunity last month to visit a few of the local farms that supply produce to Willy Street Co-op. Over the course of five gorgeous autumn days we visited eight local farms.

Our first stop was Troy Community Farm, a small 5 acre urban farm on Madison's North Side. Claire, the farmer, had most of her fields planted in cover crops like the rye grass in the picture above. All of the farms that we visited were organic and all use cover crops to some degree. It was impressive to see how much the farmers depend on this green manure, which builds their soil and lessens their reliance on other fertility inputs.

A neat and tidy stand of Brussels sprouts and kale at Troy.

As we walked around we noticed two sandhill cranes browsing in one of the fields at the edge of the farm. What a wonderful oasis for them in the middle of the city! They let us get surprisingly close before they finally flew away.

Herbs are one of the things that Troy grows for the Co-op. They were dwindling a little with the season when we visited, but it was still impressive to see the large beds of chives, sage, oregano, and mint.

Next was West Star Farm, a short drive South of Madison. This is a 40 acre farm, and about exactly what I would want if I owned a farm.... not too big, not too small, just right.

Kohlrabi at West Star. I have to admit that this is not one of my favorite vegetables - it's pretty much just like broccoli stems, but more expensive. It is a beautiful plant though, I have to admit.

For whatever reason numerous farms had a good butternut squash year. George at West Star had one of his greenhouses just packed with bins of it. It made a beautiful scene with his popcorn hanging from the ceiling curing.

Speaking of bumper butternut crops, this is the scene that awaited us at Yesteryear Farm, the farm we visited the following morning.

Henry, the farmer at Yesteryear, turned out to be Henry Bunn, who was a professor of mine at UW in my days as an anthropology student. He is a preeminent scholar in the world of paleoanthropology, and also a farmer of pumpkins, squash, and heirloom tomatoes. Small world.

This beautiful old barn is where Henry was storing his pie pumpkins and butternut squash. His priority was to get them out of here and into more insulated storage before the hard frosts come.

We took a walk out to Henry's heirloom tomato field, which at that point was not much to see. Frost had hit the tomatoes and the plants were brown and withered. We did see this cool solar powered irrigation system. The panel hooked up to two large batteries that power a well and pump water to the field.

Next up was Garden to Be, grower of microgreens, and other specialty crops. Besides the Co-op, Garden to Be markets to many upscale restaurants. This is the view inside the greenhouse where they had their microgreens, which are basically sprouts that are grown in soil.

One of the cool things (literary!) at Garden to Be was this cooler, made from straw bales. Scott, the farmer, told us that it insulates really well..... very cool.

Baby bok choy at Garden to Be. This farm had by far the most beautifully tended and immaculate fields.

Next up was Vermont Valley, a larger farm that any we had visited thus far. They are known mostly for their CSA, which has somewhere around 2,000 members. We were shown around by Jesse, the son of the owners, and his wife Jonnah, who coincidentally, I had gone to high school, and been in show choir with. Again, small world.

They were planting garlic on the day we were there. This is one of the crops that Vermont Valley grows for the Co-op, and there was a lot of it in the field. We were surprised to learn that they don't even mulch their garlic - they said that it overwinters for them just fine without any cover.... I'd bet the heavy snow cover that we've gotten the last few years has helped.

Before we left for the day, Jesse took us to their potato field a few miles away from their main farm. Potatoes are the other crop that Vermont Valley grows for the Co-op, and they grow a lot of them. This land is very close to the Wisconsin River - flat, sandy, and just perfect for potatoes. Jesse proudly showed us their brand-new irrigation system. It has it's own transformer and is totally computerized. Quite a contrast from the small solar irrigation system we had seen earlier in the day!

Our next excursion was to Tipi Produce, about 40 minutes South of Madison. Tipi is famous for their carrots, and we were delighted to see the whole process. First, Steve, the farmer, took us into one of their barns to see this machine that washes the carrots. It was a neat old contraption that reminded me of something from a Doctor Seuss story. One one end, a worker shoveled carrots onto a conveyor, and they slowly made their way to the other side of the machine where they were loaded into bins for storage.

We then took a walk around the entire farm. Many of the carrots (like these ones), were still in the field in long beautiful rows.

We were also treated to a demonstration of the carrot harvesting machine that Steve and his crew use. This thing literally lifted the carrots out of the ground, cut their tops off, and brought them to a waiting worker who loaded them into crates on a wagon. Again, and old machine, but one that does it's job well.

Steve is a masterfull farmer, and we learned a ton from him as we walked the fields. Beets...


Nappa Cabbage.... At one point we walked very close to the property that neighbors Tipi - a conventional farm that monocrops corn. Steve described how the people who own the land very rarely come there, they pay someone to plant and harvest for them using GPS to guide the tractor. There was a marked difference between the soil on Steve's side of the property line and the conventionally farmed soil. It was sandier and thinner than Steve's beautiful dark rich dirt, and large gullies had formed where topsoil easily ran off during rainstorms. It was a good lesson on why we support organic farmers. Steve cares for his soil almost more than he cares for his plants. He understands that you can't have healthy plants without first ensuring healthy dirt. The conventional world seems to have no concept of that.

Tipi turnips....

Here's the crew from Willy Street. It was so good for these people to get out of the store and see where our food comes from. The whole experience provided a much needed breath of fresh air (literally) to this crew of hard working produce people!

The next day we drove two hours West of Madison to visit Keewaydin Organics. Keewaydin is a group of farms, mostly Amish, that are coordinated by Rufus, a non-Amish farmer who grew up in the area. First we toured Rufus's farm, which is perched high on a ridge overlooking the beautiful countryside. The greenhouses are works in progress, built overtop crops that will soon need the plastic covers that Rufus plans to put up in the next few weeks.

This is Wisconsin's Driftless Region, the part of the state where the glaciers never got to, and steep hills dominate the scenery. After touring Rufus's farm, we ate a wonderful early lunch that his wife prepared for us, and then headed off into the countryside to visit a few of the farms that Rufus works with. Because they were Amish, we couldn't take pictures, which was a shame.

We saw a lot that day - four different Amish farms who grow vegetables for Keewaydin, and also CROP, Organic Valley's produce division. We were astounded by the amount of work the Rufus and the people who work for him have to do to coordinate the farms. The Amish don't use email or phone, so a representative from Keewaydin must drive from farm to farm every day to find out what's available from each farm, deliver orders to the farmers, and finally pick up the produce from them. It was fascinating to meet the Amish farmers and get a brief glimpse of their way of life, so different from ours.

The last farm Rufus took us to was one of the non-Amish farms that supply Keewaydin. This particular farm grows almost all of the local chard that's sold at the Co-op, as well as some of the cilantro. We were surprised and delighted when the farmers, Jason and Janelle, presented us with a beautiful early supper of produce from their farm and mutton from a sheep that Jason had recently slaughtered. It was a beautiful gesture, and a wonderful meal.

Our last farm was the biggest and most well known of Wisconsin produce farms: Harmony Valley. Harmony is also in the Driftless Region, but a little farther West than Keewaydin, closer to the Mississippi. Since our tour of Keewaydin was a long day unto itself, we drove back to Madison and then drove out two and a half hours in the same direction the next day to get to Harmony. A lot of driving, but totally worth it.

Richard De Wilde has been farming successfully at Harmony for a long long time, and it shows. They have over 50 employees, and lots of new, very professional equipment to process the root crops and salad greens that they specialize in. Andrea, Richard's partner gave us a tour of the packing buildings - impressive indeed. I should have gotten pictures!

Then Richard took us on a tour of their many fields - the picture above is the Willy Street crew picking scarlet turnips with him. We ended our day by feasting on an amazing lunch prepared by the farm chef who cooks daily for the workers. Lucky them!

Happy pigs sleeping in the October sun at Harmony Valley. They keep just a few for meat for themselves and their farm workers. I just had to take a picture because I had never seen pigs with such distinct smiles on their faces.

The hustle and bustle of the crew at Harmony was unrivaled by any of the other farms we met. It was a fitting end to our tours - we had started at a small urban farm in Madison, and ended at a large farm way out in the country. What a diverse food landscape we live in!

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Roasted Autumn Veggies

A simple meal today, but one of my favorites - especially this time of year. It's a wonderful way to use up veggies. I chose my ingredients only because they happened to be in my fridge - you can make this recipe with almost any autumnal vegetables.

It started with these baby carrots. These are real baby carrots, unlike what you buy in a bag at the supermarket. Those "baby carrots" are actually adult carrots that have been lathed down to stumps. What a waste! These babies were my reward after thinning the fall carrots in the garden.

One of the last of the summer squash from the garden. We still haven't had a hard frost in Madison, although the countryside around us has. How wonderful to still be picking summer squash and cherry tomatoes in October!

Here's a weird one. Salsify from West Star Farm. Salsify is an unusual and old fashioned vegetable. I've had it before, but it's not something that I'd go out of my way to buy. This was gifted to me, so I gave it a shot. It was Thomas Jefferson's favorite vegetable - kind of like a parsnip but with a meatier texture.... some people compare it to oysters, but I'm not convinced.

Two of the last of the Paprika peppers I bought at the farmer's market a few weeks back. Peppers hold really well in the fridge if they're wrapped in plastic.

Some local celery that has been floating around in my fridge for longer than it should. I used the three biggest stalks with their leaves for this dish and saved the rest for soup tomorrow.

All that plus a few slices of garlic, and a bit of chopped fresh thyme. Mixed with olive oil and roasted in the oven at 425 for about 30 minutes. Vegetables take on a wonderful sweetness and richness when cooked this way.

The finishing touch was a few dabs of this heavenly chevre from Dreamfarm. What a treat!

So simple, so quick, so delicious. Food like this feels wonderful to eat. It's grounding, earthy, satisfying... everything I want on a late October Sunday.

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