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Hello blog readers. Well, it’s been a couple months without a post from us here on the farm. It’s summer, and we are pretty busy. However, we do write a weekly newsletter for our CSA subscription program, and we will now be posting each week’s newsletter here on the blog. We’re just going to pick up in the middle of things…. I think you’ll be able to catch on:

After last week’s mini account of our farm’s history, I thought I’d write a bit about how our farm looks today. When we moved onto this property in the early part of 2011, it was just a big expanse of grass. Formerly, this farm was operated as a dairy, but it had been lying fallow for at least six years and cut for hay from time to time.

Converting what I like to call “old-growth pasture” to tilled soil is a major undertaking. We have a diverse mix of plants in our pasture fields, but the dominant species are various types of grass, and the dreaded buttercup. In order to create a soil medium that will successfully grow vegetables, it’s necessary to kill (or at least mortally wound) these perennial grasses. The first step is plowing. For our big initial field preparations, we hire a neighbor with a big tractor and a big two-bottom plow. The plow undercuts the soil at a depth of about 15”, and inverts it, flipping and burying the grass where it will theoretically perish for lack of sunlight.  The plow leaves a sort of wavy pattern on the top of the soil. After a certain amount of time, we either decide the grass has been buried long enough to die, or we have to plant so we just forge ahead. Then it’s time to disk. The disk is actually a series of rolling disks, set on their edges, that we drag across the field, perpendicular to the plowed waves. It breaks up large clods of dirt and begins to level out the ridges. Disking is a very bumpy tractor job.

Once the field has been plowed and disked, we use different tools to break up and smooth out the soil, partly depending on the time of year and how wet the soil is, and partly depending on what we plan to plant in the field. After three years of continuing to break new ground on our farm, we now have about 25 acres that have been plowed and prepared for planting. This year, 15 acres will be used to grow vegetable crops over the course of the year, and the other 10 are either being rested after a year or two of vegetable production or are recently plowed fields that we are “bare fallowing” in an effort to bring the grass and other perennial weeds more under control. Despite our best efforts, the old-growth pasture grasses are amazingly tenacious. They have deep and complex networks of roots, and they propagate with underground runners that can pierce straight through a full-size potato and grow several feet long in a single season. Bare-fallowing helps clean up the patches of grass that survive plowing. We use tractor-mounted tools that undercut or drag out the grass roots without disturbing the soil structure or pulverizing soil aggregates. Finally, all of our fields get a sowing of cover crops before the winter rains set in. Cover crops protect soil against erosion during the winter, and when we turn them under in the spring, they build organic matter in our soil. More on that next time!

Box Contents for July 23rd

1 bunch red beets

1 small bunch carrots

1 bunch collards

1 bunch sweet onions

2 zucchini

1 bunch baby bok choi

1 head Samantha red oakleaf lettuce

4 ‘Miniature White’ salad cucumbers

1 bunch dill

Large Box Additions

First tomatoes!

Sage

Flashy Trout’s Back lettuce

Next week’s produce (we think): carrots – potatoes – scallions – fennel – chard – savoy cabbage – broccoli (maybe) – cukes & zukes!

Ideas and info for this week’s produce

Beets  – Beets are making their first appearance in the CSA boxes this week. We grow three different varieties of beets, which you will probably see each of at some point this year, but today you are getting the classic red beet. The simplest way to make your beets is to boil them whole. No need to peel, just put them in a small pot with enough water to cover, and boil until the beets are easily pierced with a paring knife. Drain, and run under cold tap water. The beets’ skin will easily slip off. Then you may use the cooked, peeled beets however you like. I am pleased that our dill crop is ready to pick in time for this week’s box, because I think dill is a great accompaniment to both beets and cucumbers. Cubed chilled beets, cucumbers, and slices of sweet onion would make a lovely salad, either with a simple vinegar dressing or some kind of creamy addition (yogurt, sour cream), topped off with a sprinkle of minced dill.

Speaking of cucumbers:

Cucumber – I think cucumber is one of the most popular items we include in the CSA. Just about everyone enjoys cucumbers, and they are easy to eat, even if you feel overwhelmed by cooking some of your other vegetables. We have planted a LOT of cucumbers this year, and we expect to be able to give them in the box regularly from now through mid-September. Cukes should be stored in a sealed container the fridge, and will keep at least a week if un-cut. All of these cucumbers will work for the refrigerator pickle recipe. One large or two medium cucumbers will probably fill a quart jar.

Recipe – Refrigerator Pickles

Slice cucumbers into ¼” thick rounds. Slice half an onion and a sweet pepper into strips. Pack vegetables into a quart jar. Roughly chop dill and add to jar. In a saucepan, bring to a boil ¾ cup apple cider vinegar, ½ cup water, ½ cup sugar (or honey), 1 teaspoon peppercorns, 1 ½ teaspoons mustard seed and pour over cucumbers to fill jar. Leave uncovered and chill for 24 hours. Cover, and keep in fridge. Pickles will keep in the fridge for several weeks.  (You can also make a half recipe.)

Beet Greens – What with all the roots this week, along with the zucchini and cucumber, your box is a bit light on cooking greens…. But don’t forget about your beet greens! Cook just like kale or chard (beet greens and chard are the same species!). More recipes in today’s email.

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We like to grow weird vegetables. One of our favorites is spigariello, a member of the large and diverse brassica family. It looks like this:

We get our spigariello seeds from “Seeds from Italy,” a great little company that imports Franchi brand and other Italian seeds for sale in the US. They’re also the source for many of our favorite chicories and beans.

We first grew spigariello at the suggestion of our friend Justin, who had cooked with it in Italy. We didn’t know quite what to expect when we read the description: “many small broccoli tops that will resprout when cut.” It turned out to be a big, bushy plant that eventually formed a very small central flower head that looked a little like broccoli. When you pick the central flower, the plant begins to produce small side branches, which each have a tiny floret of their own. This growth habit allows us to harvest continuously from the same plants for many weeks, since the plants continue to make new shoots to replace the ones we pick.

Botanical side note – this growth habit is typical of brassicas, and is also found in basil and other herbs. Plants produce flowers in order to reproduce, and when you pick their un-opened flowers, some plants are moved to continue to produce these flowering parts ad infinitum. From the plant’s perspective, these flowers are its only chance to reproduce and keep its genes in the gene pool. When we pick them, the plant somehow knows what has happened, and makes more. Pole beans and climbing peas have a similar trait – if you leave a few pods on the plant long enough for the seed inside to mature, the plant will slow its production of new pods. In the “mind” of the plant, it has successfully produced the seeds it needs to pass on its genes, and so has less of a motivation to make more new seed pods.

OK, back to the weird Italian greens. When we harvested our first crop, we cooked it a few different ways. In texture, the leaves of spigariello are similar to a hearty kale, like cavolo nero (aka Lacinato kale or the hated moniker “Dino” kale), but it also has tender, meaty stems (see picture above) that are probably the best part. The stems are a little like broccoli rabe, but less juicy, and a little like chinese broccoli, but less crisp. When we pick them off the plant, we break each flowering shoot at the point where it snaps off easily, which ensures that the whole sprig is tender enough for eating. The flavor is also most similar to kale, but more complex. It’s a little bitter and a little mineral-y, neither of which sounds particularly appealing, but for those of us who love strong flavored vegetables, spigariello has a taste that you can’t find in other greens.

Spigariello’s unusual appearance and funny name make it an attraction at our farmers market stand. Someone will pick up a bunch and say “I’ll take this. What is it?” We usually recommend the following simple preparation:

Cut the stemmy parts into small bits, reserving the leaves. Put the stems in a pan with some olive oil, crushed garlic, and maybe a little water. Cook until softened, turning up the heat a little if you want a little browning. When the stems have slightly softened, roughly chop the leaves and add them to the pan. Cook until done to your liking. In Italy, they might then toss the spigariello with sausage and some red chili flakes and perhaps then add it all to pasta. Come vuoi.

Botanical mystery

The real reason I wanted to write about spigariello today is because I’m hoping to solve a botanical mystery. The internets tell me that spigariello is just a variety of broccoli, Brassica oleracea, Italica group. All the varieties of Brassica oleracea that I’m familiar with have yellow flowers, with the exception of Chinese cabbage (gai lan) which is in the Alboglabra group. The internets also tell me that the Alboglabra group originated in the Mediterranean. So, what I’m hoping someone will be able to tell me is whether spigariello is actually more closely related to gai lan than to other broccolis. Anyone, anyone? Also, given that these different varieties are all considered to be the same species, can Alboglabra cross breed with Italica?

In my perusals of the internet in search of spigariello information, I have come across other interesting broccoli-like plants. For photos of some other Italian broccoli-like plants, check out “Amici dell’Orto.” The site is in Italian, but if you click around you can see photos of other Italian oddities, like red-veined arugula and lots of crazy melons and squash. However, every site I visited insisted that spigariello, despite its white flowers, is just a variety of broccoli. I don’t believe it’s true!

In any case, I hope you’ll come to the market and try some spigariello for yourself. We’re in the midst of the great freeze of 2010 at the moment, but if we’re lucky, the hardy spigariello plants will survive to see another day. If not, you’ll have to wait until next spring.

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Yesterday, a group of 11 high schoolers visited the farm. They came with a group called Global Visionaries, which helps high school kids earn their service-learning graduation requirement through, ultimately, a trip to Guatemala and, presently, through service-learning here in the Seattle-area. Odd as it may sound, volunteering on our for-profit farm qualifies as service-learning…. but anyway…

We had the kids hand weeding garlic, pulling dead cabbage stumps out of the field to compost, building a compost pile, transplanting spring leeks (yum), and finally, cooking lunch.

Although I think 15- and 16-year-olds don’t have enough perspective or experience to really get what makes small-scale farming unusual, my hope is that exposure to these sorts of experiences might resonate as they grow up and do have to think about and consider their path in life and what is meaningful to them. More immediately, I really hope that having the kids cook something delicious and simple empowers them to start cooking for themselves. When I say that I don’t think 15-year olds have the context to understand why small farms like ours are important, the experience they lack is buying and cooking their own food and being forced to choose – cheap or healthy, convenient or difficult. For me, when I was first cooking for myself, those were difficult and frustrating decisions.

So what’d we make? We sauteed some parsnips and onions and had that with The Best Winter Salad Ever, invented by Siri and Rand. I described it yesterday as random vegetable and bean salad, but if you wanted to put fancy pants on it, you could call it black chickpea and radicchio salad with winter vegetable slaw and tahini. It’s really good. We grew a variety of chickpea last year called Black Kabouli, that, unsurprisingly, is black. They taste pretty much the same as normal chickpeas, but their color really added to the beauty of the dish.

Here’s a recipe, of sorts.

1. Cook chickpeas or other delicious bean. Set aside to cool.

2. In a bowl, add shredded carrots, and/or other slaw-able vegetables, i.e. cabbage, jerusalem artichokes, apple, etc.

3. Add roughly chopped radicchio to bowl. Cabbage would work too.

4. Stir in chickpeas, olive oil, rice wine vinegar, ground coriander, and a little tahini. Serve room temperature.

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