Monday, March 28, 2011

Misty and Stewy

Beef and Bourbon Stew
This is a juicy, meaty stew made hauntingly spicy with the addition of bourbon. The bourbon and orange peel do unexpected magic and make this stew seem ancient, in a misty-coming-in-from-out-of-the-mossy-woods type of way. Serve it to six people with a large hunk of good bread to tear apart and use to slurp up sauce. It is also wonderful over pappardelle.

You will need:
2 pounds of beef, appropriate for stewing (ribmeat, roast, tail, shank, etc) cut into 1-2 inch chunks
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
2 white lengths of fat Egyptian Walking onions or the white part of a small leek, sliced
6 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 pound of cremini mushrooms, quartered
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup bourbon
2 cups red wine
1 cup beef broth
1 dried chili de arbol
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1 strip of fresh orange peel, orange part only, 2 inches long
1 quart of canned tomatoes, drained of their juices

To make the stew:
Pat each piece of meat dry, then season them lightly with salt and pepper. Dredge (lightly coat) each piece with flour by tossing them around in a shallow bowl, a few at a time, with enough flour to make each piece look dusty.

In a large Dutch oven, on a medium-high setting, heat a glug of olive oil until it is ripply. Place pieces of the flour-coated meat in the pan, a few at a time, making sure to leave at least an inch of space around each. As the bottom browns, turn each piece. Brown all sides of each piece. Carefully remove each piece with tongs as it finishes browning and add a replacement until all the pieces of meat are browned. Remove all the meat from the pan and set it aside in a bowl for a few minutes.

If the pan is short on hot fat, add another glug of olive oil, then dump in the onion, garlic, carrots, and mushrooms. Cook, stirring frequently, until the edges are browned and the vegetables are beginning to soften. There should be a good collection of browned bits all over the bottom of the pan. Stir in the tomato paste and let it cook briefly, just a few seconds, until fragrant.

Watch out for the hot splatters as you pour in the bourbon, scraping up those good browned bits with a wooden spoon. The bourbon will reduce quickly to a syrup. Pour in the wine, beef broth, and add the chile, thyme, and orange peel. Add the meat and whatever juices have collected in the bowl. Add the drained tomatoes.

Bring the whole mixture to a low boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Place the lid over the pot and let the stew very gently bubble for 3 hours, checking occasionally to make sure the simmer is low and all is good in the pot.

Taste and season as necessary before serving.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


The wind today headbutts our windows and dervishes the wrong way down the kitchen exhaust fan. It slaps banana leaves against the bedroom walls and blows clouds, sleek racing greyhounds, across the track of mountains. It turns rain into cold bullets. But our house holds. It doesn't have holes.


My mouth, on the other hand, does have holes. Or, it has one big hole where a wisdom tooth and some bone used to be, now replaced with a synthetic bone-like material and loosely sewed over with stitches that scratch the inside of my cheek.


Today's rain stops me from my now-nightly routine. Just before going to bed in the evening, I've slid on the miner's headlamp, grabbed a bottle of beer and a pair of chopsticks, and headed out into the garden. Each night, slowly, poring over every plant, I look for slugs. When I find them, I pluck them with the chopsticks from their slime trail and drop them into a plastic container I have outside for this very purpose. After I find what is out and visible, I tip the container over on the driveway and stomp on the assholes. Then, into two bowls in two different beds, set deep, the top flush with the surface of the soil, I pour the contents of the bottle of beer. In the mornings, I dump the bowls and their slimy drowned prisoners out into the compost pile. (No worries, I only use the cheap stuff; the buggers don't deserve any better.) The slugs have been messing with me this year, leaving holes in everything. Not only have they nibbled down nearly all the historic beans I brought from the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center (I've started more in six packs on the patio, safe from slugs but potentially slowed by a future transplant), but they've also been nibbling on my garlic. My garlic! No one messes with my garlic.


I spent this afternoon grading essays and entering scores into the computer. Red gaps where scores should be glared at me; many students aren't turning in their work. In the three sections I have of AP English Language, a composition and rhetoric class, students' grades are nearly entirely dependent upon their essays. If they don't write them, they can't prove to me that they're learning; but, I know very well that student performance is very closely related to teacher performance. The students aren't doing their homework for a reason. There is a hole in my teaching somewhere. Those red gaps are telling me that I'm missing something, for a good teacher's gradebook shouldn't look like a bloodied, gap-toothed grimace.


I am tired of holes.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Day of Dates

Does thoughtfully organic, water-conscious agriculture happen in the desert? Can it work?

Based on what my friends and I witnessed at Flying Disc Ranch this Saturday, the answer is yesity, yesity, yes.

Curious to learn more about what I had read online describing the ranch, I emailed the owner, Robert Lower, and asked if I could visit. He welcomed me kindly, and when Elizabeth and Sarah and I rolled in Saturday, his son Eric and his WWOOFer Lalo Porto greeted us warmly.

The immediately noticeable aspect of the ranch is the difference from the agriculture that surrounds it. This, across the street from Flying Disc, is an industrial agriculture potato field.

This is Flying Disc.

My friends and I had been a little turned around when we were trying to get to the ranch (this is becoming a trend, apparently), and we found ourselves on a dirt road bouncing through another date farm. In that farm, the rows were perfectly straight, the trees uniform in size, and the soil free of any life. This farm had its own elegance, in an austere, clean way, but it was a far cry from the raucous liveliness of Flying Disc.

Unlike the carefully manicured and uniform date farms around it, Flying Disc shines due to its lack of uniformity. There is not just one kind of date; there are many, including a few quirky seedlings. In fact, there aren't just dates, but the farm echoes the structure of a jungle, with layers of life. The top story is crown of blue-gray fronds and beaded sprays of waxy date flowers. Citrus trees—temple oranges and grapefruit—form the middle story, and the bottom floor is a carpet of compost and grasses.

Other plants live here too, some that don't give a crop, but provide homes. Underneath this old, untended date palm decays a truck, and behind the bench seat of this truck, bees have a built a buzzing hive.

Two owls live in the shaggy skirts of this fan palm.

Near the house, in an area free of palms, the Lowers have a few rows of grape vines and a vegetable garden. Eric listed the grape varieties, six or so, and the one that sticks most in my mind is the Red Muscat. Constantly on the hunt for good muscat grapes, I asked if they sold the grapes at market, as they do the dates and citrus. "We do, a few. We try to eat as many of them as we can because they're so good, and sometimes we only sell one box. Usually one person will buy the whole box."

What makes this farm work is the balance of control and nature. The farm uses a careful drip system, avoiding water waste, and drawing from its own well. Instead of killing weeds and grass under the trees, the farm leaves them to cool the earth, allowing the dates to ripen more slowly. Eric told me that they consistently harvest dates a month later than the farms that surround them. No synthetic fertilizers stain this soil. Yet, the soil is rich and retains water; the Lowers achieve this by composting fronds and farm waste, then mulching the trees with the aged compost, entropy with a watchful eye.

The compost does more than fertilize and retain water, as the Lowers deeply mulch, mounding well above the soil line, trees that they want to reproduce. The pile of mulch gives a place for trees to begin to root from their bases, and they sprout healthy offshoot clones.

They then plant the offshoots where they want them for the long run. They've found that potting the offshoots up to mature, then planting them again into the earth slows the growth of the young tree. Planting the offshoots directly where they will spend their lives allows them to develop a strong root system early, therefore allowing the trees to fruit while younger. And date palms don't reach maturity early as it is; it takes ten years or so for a tree to begin to fruit.

Seeing date palms bloom is like stepping back in time a millennium or two. As Lalo pointed out, "The flowers are Jurassic." And they are. They're white, waxy brooms of either male or female blossoms that split sturdy canoe-shaped pods open as they burst into fecundity.

Eric cut down a female flower spray for me. It smells of vanilla and looks like chains of enoki mushrooms emerging from a longboat. It's beautiful. (Now, as I am home and writing, it sits on my mantle, filling the living room with its gentle fragrance.)

He and Lalo explained how date reproduction worked as he handed me the spray. My friend joked that I looked like I was holding a baby. "She is, hundreds of 'em," Eric said.

To ensure the best pollination, the ranchers hand-pollinate. They climb the trees and harvest the male blossoms, whiter and more fragile looking than the female flowers, just as they begin to bloom. From these blossoms, they collect pollen, then climb back up the trees to pollinate. Lalo keeps his pollen in his work apron and tosses pollen on the flowers; Eric uses a squeeze bottle.

After spending over an hour wandering through the farm and learning, we had the opportunity to taste the ranch's product. Near the house, behind a heavy insulated door hides stacks and stacks of boxes of dates. It was chilly and dark in the cooler, and I can imagine after working through a good portion of an August day, this is where everyone must hide out to cool down and keep from turning into dates themselves. Eric rustled through boxes so we could taste what varieties they had to offer. His favorite is the Deglet Noor. Lalo says he likes them all, and proved it with a pile of date pits.

We left with a large box full of three varieties (and some citrus, for good measure). We purchased Deglet Noors, slightly crunchy, less sweet, nutty, Medjhool, huge and molasses-y, and Barhi, melty and caramelly, my favorite. All are delicious.

Eric and Lalo were generous with their time and information. I tried to thank them as we left for their openness, but probably failed in saying how much gratitude I felt.

This morning, into my cereal, I sliced a few Deglet Noors. The tree that gave this fruit lived a decade before fruiting; it was watered without waste; it may have even been an offspring of an older tree on the ranch. The fruit that I sliced had been monitored by hand its entire life; it was pollinated by someone who had to climb up a ladder and into the branches; it was harvested with the same care and bodily risk.

Thank you, Eric and Lalo.

(Thanks also to Sarah Wallin Wightman for the first picture of the fruit crate and the picture of me holding the flower spray.)

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Starting Potatoes

I've planted not only more, but also a larger variety of potatoes this year than I ever have before. Here is how I do it (a pretty common approach, but sometimes photos help).

Some people cut their potatoes into small pieces with at least two eyes before planting. This year, I chose to leave my potatoes whole. Though I haven't done this before, Pat Welsh, in Southern California Gardening, suggests that they may be more productive this way.

I leave the potatoes out in a warm, bright place so that they can begin to grow. This is called chitting. Developed sprouts, already putting out roots, help the plants grow more quickly as soon as they hit they soil.

Because some varieties, though from my experience not all, produce more potatoes the more they are layered with soil, I grow potatoes in deep, 15 gallon pots. Here is a line of pots along the very edge of our ranchito.

Potatoes grow best in loose, slightly acidic soil. This year, I mixed regular potting soil with leaves and coffee grounds; I added about 6 inches of this soil mixture to each pot, then gently wiggled two potatoes into the soil mixture until they were completely covered with soil.

The potatoes are already growing well. Once the sprouts are about 4 inches tall, I'll add another layer of the soil mixture to the pot. As they continue to grow through the early spring, I will add soil with every 4 inches of growth. This will allow the potatoes that are below the soil to be well-protected, and it will allow the varieties that sprout more potatoes from covered leaf notes to be as productive as possible. Several times through the growing season, I will fertilize with fish emulsion or liquid seaweed.

This year's varieties include Viking Red, Purple Viking, Purple Peruvian, Ozette, and German Butterball.