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When I was in college, certain criteria were of the utmost importance in choosing a roommate. It didn’t bother me in the slightest if someone smoked, caroused, borrowed my lipstick, or left dirty clothes on the floor (perhaps because I was guilty of such breaches myself). What was important was food. Did prospective roommate leave dirty dishes in the sink? Use the last of the olive oil without replacing it? Most important, what skills and equipment was prospective roommate bringing to the table? Candy thermometer? Ability to make a good, dark roux? Peel a pound of shrimp in less than five minutes?

I met Holly one summer–a torrential downpour caught us as we were leaving English class, and she offered me a ride. I learned she was looking for a new place to live, my apartment on Chimes street had an empty bedroom, and, then, I discovered her family was Italian.

How lucky could I get? Holly’s parents lived in Baton Rouge, and when we were hungover, hungry, or needed to do laundry, we could just drive across town to her parents’ house . . . around dinner time. Holly’s mother was an amazing cook, regularly turning out all kinds of authentic Italian-American fare like lasagna with giant meatballs on the side, shrimp scampi, smothered cucuzza squash, and this rustic supper dish, which never failed to send me into a swoon of nostalgia for the Italian grandmother I never had. Really–borrow my lipstick anytime.

Braised Greens with Tomato & Farm Eggs

1 onion, diced small

4 cloves garlic, minced

olive oil

1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes

2 large handfuls greens (spinach, mustard, collard, etc)

4 farm eggs

grated parmesan cheese

grilled foccacia or ciabatta

In a skillet with high sides, saute onion and garlic in olive oil until tender. Crush tomatoes with your hands or pass through a food mill and add to skillet. Season to taste with salt and pepper and simmer until sauce thickens slightly. Cut greens into ribbons and rinse in colander. Shake some of the water off, and add to tomato sauce. Cover partially and cook until greens are tender. Removed lid, and make 4 wells, or indentions, in the sauce. Carefully crack one egg into each well, sprinkle with salt, cover, and cook until eggs are just set. Sprinkle with parmesan and serve with grilled bread.

Heavy holiday dishes take a toll on even the heartiest palates. This salad is just what’s needed after weeks of cheese-laden gratins and sugary carb-fests. A simple meal that comes together in a snap, filling and full of the bright flavors of fish sauce and citrus against the rustic crunch of cabbage and nuts, this salad easily accommodates whatever ingredients you have on hand.

Vietnamese Chopped Cabbage Salad

2 chicken breasts, bones and skin removed

1/2 head cabbage, finely shredded

1 small bunch green onion, sliced thin

1 handful cilantro leaves

1 handful mint leaves

1/4 c. toasted nuts (almonds, peanuts, or pecans) chopped

1 apple, julienned

2-3 radishes, sliced or julienned

juice of 1 lime

4 Tbs. grapeseed or sesame oil

1 Tbs. soy sauce

3-4 Tbs. fish sauce

1 tsp. siracha chili sauce (substitute chili flakes or tabasco sauce)

2 Tbs. rice wine vinegar

pinch brown sugar or honey

Season chicken breasts with salt and grill. Allow to rest before cutting into strips. Combine cooled chicken, cabbage, onions, apple, radish, cilantro, and mint in large bowl. Whisk lime juice, oil, soy sauce, fish sauce, chili sauce, vinegar, and sugar together in small bowl. Taste and correct seasoning. Toss nuts and dressing with salad in large bowl until well combined. Serve topped with additional herbs and toasted nuts if desired.

“What do you do?” In most parts of our fair country, this is the question people ask one another while they’re sniffing each other out. Not here in Austin. Almost without fail the first thing new friends (because we’re all friends here in Austin) ask each other, is, “Where do you live?” I have never lived anywhere where geography was so important. Being adventurous (or geographically dysfunctional, or peripatetic, or restless, or indecisive, take your pick), we’ve tried out quite a few neighborhoods in our not-quite-three-years here. Spicewood, Hemphill Park, West Campus, Harris Park—we’ve finally settled in East Austin. I needed to be closer to the farm, and we wanted to live someplace with easy access to pretty much anywhere (restless?), so East Austin off Caesar Chavez and Chicon seemed like a good fit. A delightfully funky neighborhood, steps away from Lady Bird Lake, with easy access to I35 and Mopac, I could live in the city and still wake up to the sounds of roosters crowing. Perfect, we thought, moved in, and fell in love with the welcoming families on our block, the Friday night music, the Sunday evening hot-rod cruises, and the ice cream carts.

Thomas and I laugh that it’s a lot easier to dig a hole on the east side—now that we’ve crossed I35, our house sits on the rich, dark alluvial soil of the Blackland Prairie, once part of the True or Tall Grass Prairie – habitat to the indigenous Comanches, and prairie-dependent species such as buffalo, antelope, badgers, prairie wolves, prairie dogs, burrowing owls and many others. This rich soil and a close-by hungry market has given birth to a collection of urban farms perhaps unparalleled in any other large urban center. Carol Ann and Larry were the first urban farm pioneers in the neighborhood. They bought the original farmhouse and surrounding farm on Lyons Road that has become Boggy Creek Farm, a cultural institution here in Austin. In fact, I was a Boggy Creek Farm customer long before I ever moved here. My family still teases me about the time I had to cram $125.00 worth of Boggy Creek Farm strawberries into a hotel room refrigerator. Besides the abundant, certified organic vegetables that come from their land, Carol Ann and Larry have nurtured and grown a movement. Whole Foods brought us organic, but Boggy Creek Farm brought us local and alive.  Learning what just-harvested food tastes like, and how it makes us feel, has sprouted thousands of locavores, and many newly-committed local farmers, including the second wave of East Austin farmers. A more-than-generous mentor, Carol Ann and Larry opened their doors and their fields to Stephanie, and Rain Lily was born. When Dorsey Barger, co-owner of the East Side Café, decided she wanted to buy property on the East Side to grow more food for the restaurant, Carol Ann and Larry were there to offer advice and encouragement. The folks at G4 Farms on Springdale have been by for advice too, and we all visit each other’s properties to see what’s growing.

The sense of community and purpose is palpable every time we all get together—on a recent evening, we hosted a visiting author who has written a book about urban farming. Dorsey brought just-harvested baby vegetables with anchovy butter and sea salt, Carol Ann made a salad still quivering with life, and we made a seafood stew made with Rain Lily tomatoes and aromatics. Talk was loud and the wine poured freely. Everyone laughed and compared stories, shared advice, debated agricultural politics, but most importantly, we all ate well.

I would never have imagined that I would find such community in East Austin, much less a movement. The Blackland Prairie Concerned Citizens Association tells us, “The Texas Blackland Prairie is endangered. According to American Farmland Trust, the Texas Blackland Prairie is the 4th most threatened region in the country. America currently loses more than one million acres of farm and ranch land each year to development. Texas loses more land to development than any other state in the country. Information provided by the Texas Cooperative Extension indicates that agribusiness represents a $4.26 billion impact on Travis County. The value generated from producing, processing and marketing food and fiber continues to play a dramatic role and it is important to recognize agribusiness as vital to the continued efficiency and economic growth in Travis County.”

And here we are, laughing, connecting, sharing, encouraging, keeping our fingers crossed, and taking back the prairie, one urban farm at a time.

A truly magical evening on the farm–many thanks to the pig, the folks at Full Quiver Farm who raised it, our fearless and tireless staff & our pitmaster, Stephanie Scherzer! Here’s our scrapbook of the evening, documented by the talented Jody Horton (www.jodyhorton.com).

Farm Members will soon enjoy exclusive access to more special events, cooking and gardening classes, farm potlucks and pickling parties at Rain Lily Farm. Click here to join!

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pig roast jeremy

pig roast julian

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pig roast stephanie

There’s something about a pumpkin that makes me go all silly. At first sighting each year, I squeal with delight as loudly as the children do. I’m not sure if it’s because pumpkins are harbingers of fall, cozy nights, and cooler weather, or if it’s out of sheer delight at their rustic, lumpy innocence. I never tire of pumpkin recipes either–pie, cake, muffins, curry, laksa, salad . . . and this invention, which was born out of a chilly night and some leftover risotto!

for 1-2 servings

1 small pumpkin

olive oil

salt & pepper

1-2 cups cooked risotto (just about any flavor works)

4-6 smoked or sundried tomatoes

1/4-1/2 cup cooked meat (sausage or chicken is best)

2 cups chicken stock

4 Tbs. cream

Preheat oven to 350. Cut top off pumpkin and reserve. Scoop out seeds and filaments, leaving flesh in place. Rinse seeds and toast if desired, or discard. Rub pumpkin inside and out with olive oil, salt and pepper. Soak dried tomatoes in warm water until softened and dice. Add to pumpkin cavity along with remaining ingredients, and check for seasoning. Replace pumpkin lid, place in small casserole dish and bake uncovered until cooked. To serve, place in a large bowl, and ladle out soup, along with scoops of cooked pumpkin.

FQ pigLast week, I received a disturbing email from someone who was quite worked up about the pig roast we have planned for next month. The response overall has been great, and I personally can’t wait to spend a beautiful autumn evening with friends amid music, great conversation, laughter, and good food and drink. This person, however, was not so happy apparently, and expressed disgust and dismay in an angry email that we would choose to celebrate the season with the “sacrifice of a living creature.” Such activities apparently render all we offer “archaic” and “violent.”

“But, but, but . . . “ I sputtered, impotently, to the computer screen. We’ve always carried meat! We’ve never claimed to be vegetarian! Some of my best friends are vegetables!! Really, I understand that eating meat carries with it a stain of violence, that to eat meat, something must die. As a young girl, I hated hunting, and railed against the hunters I knew. Even then, I was not a vegetarian, and finally came to realize that it was not the killing of animals that so disturbed me, but the pleasure hunters took in killing gentle creatures of the forest. Somehow it seemed wrong to enjoy it so much, and perhaps that is what this unknown person was trying to express.

It has only recently occurred to me, though, that perhaps all the hunters I know are not cold-hearted killers, taking joy in felling a deer or a dove, but instead are perhaps experiencing the thrill and the joy of connecting with their food in much the same way that I experience a rush pulling a beet out of the ground. Buying out meat in shrink-wrapped packages and pretending that there was no sacrifice involved has, I believe, made us less sensitive, less grateful, and more callous.

I read once that French Laundry chef Thomas Keller asked his rabbit purveyor to show him how to kill and skin a rabbit. The purveyor brought back twelve live rabbits. He showed Keller how to kill, skin, and eviscerate one of the rabbits and promptly left. When Keller tried to kill the first rabbit he did a horrific job. The next ten went somewhat more smoothly but Keller learned a valuable lesson from that first rabbit. Because killing the rabbits had been such a terrible experience, he would not waste them. He would use all his powers as a chef to make them into beautiful dishes. Last winter, I worked with my friend Jesse Griffiths at one of his poultry cooking seminars that began with the “harvest” of two chickens. It was gentle, not traumatic, but still a little emotional and hard to watch, and since then I’ve often wondered how much meat I would eat if I had to kill it all myself. Not as much, probably. But, still, some.

In the past, butchering animals and preparing meat was a communal event. My mother tells stories of neighbors coming to their small farm each fall to help my grandparents butcher the hog they raised to feed the family. The two-day event culminated in a feast, and everyone involved was actively grateful for the sustenance the pig would offer all year. No one butchers hogs in our family anymore, but still, I married into a big “hunting” family, and there are trips several times a year to the “ranch” in West Texas to hunt for deer and doves. The communal spirit prevails on these trips—they are a way of filling the freezer with venison, but also a time to drink and laugh, to connect, to tell stories and trade recipes, to marvel at each other’s skills with a knife . . . would it make more sense to gather around a platter of chicken “fingers”? Do we want our children to believe that chickens have fingers? I want mine to respect the physical world they live in, to understand that no food is “throwaway” food, that all eating requires a sacrifice. This conversation about food is going to be a long one. Growing a banana requires cutting down the rainforest. Eating a veggie burger requires that farmers grow more soybeans, much of them genetically modified and heavily dependant on chemicals. If you eat a non-local tomato in winter, it was likely grown in Florida and produced by defacto slave labor. The days of innocence are over, and it’s no longer a viable option to feel immune from complicity in the broken food system by simply being a vegetarian.

 Yes, we should all eat less meat. Yes, we’ll have a “vegetarian option” at our party. Yes, there are many days I don’t eat meat at all. But, when I do choose to eat meat, I’m glad to look the pig in the eye. Our meat is raised by people we know. Mike and Debbie Sams and their family have raised the pig we will be eating on October 17th. It has lived the way a pig should live—in its social group, never crowded, fed the whey from the family’s cheese-making operation, kept with its mother until naturally weaned, taken to slaughter without stress or fear, and allowed to explore and roam at will. I have seen the animals on Kay and Jim Richardson’s farm too, I know they are happy, humanely treated, and respected for their sacrifice. That seems worthy of a celebration in my book.

amity

When my grandmother made pastry, she used the palm of her hand for a measuring cup.  After years of practice, she knew the soft weight of a cup of flour or exactly how much sweet cream butter to cut into the dough.  Pie crust, biscuits, homemade cookies, cakes, yeast rolls, cornbread, crusty loaves, or tea breads were on her table every day.

I learned from her the science and magic of pastry and bread dough: ice water in pie crust keeps the layers so flaky the crust will shatter under your fork; kneading bread dough releases the gluten from the wheat molecules and makes your bread chewy; use dried beans for pie weights, don’t handle biscuits too much or they get tough; heat the cast iron skillet to smoking hot before you put your cornbread batter in…so many secrets, and I wish every day she was still here to pass more on.  As much as I loved these lessons, I find that when I start making dinner at 5:00 or 6:00, somehow pie crust, soft yeasty rolls, and crusty loaves of bread are not part of the plan.

The other day, I asked Barrie to come over and make bread in our kitchen.  Her hands, with their sure, practiced movements, evoked sweet memories of those early days of watching my grandmother’s hands work.  Barrie spent five years in New York learning her craft—she worked at Gramercy Tavern and Balthazar before returning to Texas to work at Vespaio and Enoteca.  She has a gentle, quiet presence, and it was so soothing to watch her work, deftly rolling and shaping the dough, filling the kitchen with a warm, buttery, yeasty aroma that I wanted to crawl inside of.  As I watched her pulling a tray of perfect brioche out of the oven, I was reminded why bread is so important, so integral to our lives in the kitchen.  I find that pastry and bread play a part in just about every meal I cook, but I wouldn’t say that we eat too much of it.  An accent in the same way that meat is in my kitchen, bread and pastry nevertheless make life incredibly easy.  Toast often is an edible plate for favorite things and seasonal vegetables, flaky pastry surrounds heaps of seasonal fruit or chicken and vegetables, a tiny bite of a buttery shortbread cookie satisfies my cravings, crusty ciabatta sops up the last drops of a rustic soup, and toasted sourdough or a soft brioche roll turns last night’s dinner into a delicious lunch.

The life of a good loaf of bread unfolds over several days: on the first day, it is perfectly fresh, the inside deliciously elastic and the crust crisp.  A day or two later, the crumb begins to dry, the crust to soften, and it’s good for toast.  Toast brushed with peppery olive oil, then topped with tender baby salad leaves and soft fresh cheese; toast with creamy scrambled egg and herbs; toast topped with sautéed spring vegetables and butter.  Next day, put a slice of the now drying bread into a bowl and ladle over warm vegetable stock and greens and grate in a little aged cheese.  You might use the bread to make bread pudding or French toast.  By the end of the week, anything left from the loaf can be made into breadcrumbs.  Eat them spiked with citrus zest on seafood; mix them with garlic, herbs, and olive oil for stuffing vegetables; or store them in the freezer for the next time you make meatballs.

I’ve read about traditional communal bread ovens in small villages in Europe and dreamed of riding to the boulangerie on my bicycle, returning home with a baguette tucked under my arm.  For many years, I struggled to make true artisan bread and real pastry myself, but the truth is it takes an expert to do it right.  Now, I am happy to eat the bread and pastry from Barrie’s hands, light fingers that seem to move with confidence all on their own and know all the floury secrets passed down over generations.

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