Sunday, February 17, 2019

Simple & Creamy: Mushroom chowder


In making the Choucroute Garnie featured in a recent post—it's an Alsation dish featuring sauerkraut braised for hours in chicken stock, with many meats added and then simmered some more—I apparently got a little over-excited estimating the number of potatoes that people might be hungry for. Then my husband and I got our wires crossed while grocery shopping and we ended up with an extra pound of cremini mushrooms.

To make a long story short, we had the aforementioned abundance of cooked potatoes and those mushrooms that were starting to look a little long in the tooth. Plus it coincided with our recent spate of late winter chilly temperatures hovering in the 20s and 30s. Always in the mood for a hearty soup—check out this 12-year collection of soup recipes if you don't believe me—I got the bright idea to make a mushroom chowder, albeit a vegetarian version since we're temporarily out of Dave's homemade bacon (a situation soon to be corrected).

To cut to the chase, this came together in about 40 minutes and was, frankly, the best mushroom soup I've had anywhere, including restaurants, that I can remember. (That opinion is backed up by those here who are not shy about criticism and not over-prone to praise, by the way.) And here's a wacky thought: If you should happen to leave out the potatoes, I'd even recommend it as a substitute if you've sworn off Campbell's cream of mushroom but still crave that comforting flavor.

Mushroom Chowder

4 Tbsp. butter
1 onion, chopped in 1/4" dice
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 c. celery, finely diced
1 lb. mushrooms, thinly sliced
6 oz. sour cream
3 Tbsp. flour
1/2 c. white wine
2 c. chicken stock
2-3 c. whole milk, depending on how thick you like your chowder
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
3 bay leaves
1 1/2 lb. potatoes chopped in 1/2" dice
Salt and pepper, to taste

In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, melt butter over medium heat.

Add onions and sauté until tender. Add celery and garlic and sauté until tender. Add mushrooms and sauté until tender.

Remove from heat and sprinkle flour over the mixture, stirring well to combine. Put back on medium heat and stir frequently to keep it from sticking, about 3 minutes. Add wine and stir, scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the pot, and allow to thicken slightly.

Stir in sour cream until smooth, then add chicken stock, milk, bay leaves, thyme and potatoes. Bring to a bare simmer. Reduce heat and simmer on low heat, just enough to keep it barely bubbling, for 30-45 minutes or until potatoes are tender. (As mentioned above, leftover boiled potatoes are entirely substitutable.)

If you have some excellent bacon (like Dave makes), start with 3-4 slices cut in 1/4" pieces. Place it in the heated pan before adding butter and sauté until it's cooked but not crisp, then continue with the rest of the recipe.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Travels with Chili: A Fond Farewell


It may have been telling that a recent trip to Fraga Farmstead Creamery was taken in my husband's pickup rather than Chili, the intrepid Mini Clubman we bought 10 years ago, the first brand new car we'd ever owned.

A post way back then summed it up:

"Trumpets sounded, the crowd roared, a dog barked, clouds parted and, oh yeah, a baby cried. Y'know, the usual harbingers of a siginificant event in literature. In a workplace, a memo would have gone out and, befitting its importance, coffee and donuts would have been served in the conference room.

"In this case, we drove up to the house, parked, and pretty soon the neighbors started gathering, oohing and ahhing, opening doors and (if you're Mace, anyway) pushing buttons. Everyone had to sit in the driver's seat, watch the sunroof(s) slide back and forth, and close their eyes and breath in the new car smell.

"Pretty soon beer was being poured, wine bottles opened and a block party erupted that lasted into the late evening as kids played racecar driver in the front seat, complete with 'vroom vroom' sound effects. All of it a good sign of adventures sure to come."

And there were many of those. From Portland to Californiathe WallowasCanada, on summer camping trips and countless quick hops to area farms and coastal getaways, not to mention the more pedestrian errands that we ran every day. Our friends teased us whenever we went on trips together, saying that seeing us, the dogs and all our gear popping out of Chili was like was like the clown car at the circus.

Lately, though, there were signs that all was not well—a transmission failing, leaks here and there, check engine lights that, in order to get them to turn off, required an expensive infusion of cash. Plus we'd decided to downsize to one car, something that could serve as a road car, camping vehicle and city runabout, plus haul supplies for various house projects.

This last weekend the check engine light came on yet again, and we had to make the fateful decision. Emptying Chili of the grocery bags, road maps and collected detritus was a hard task, leaving it at the dealership even harder, with memories of so many happy times crowding around us. Our little red car, always the cutest in any lot or campground, will be sorely missed.

Check out our Travels with Chili.

Guest Essay: Goats Rule


My friend Jeffrey Hannan has had many past lives. An author, playwright and digital user experience manager, he lived on a farm as a child and gravitated to goats as his familiars. Which is why, whenever he visits Portland, it's a requirement that we stop by at least one spot where they gather, even if only through a pasture fence. His most recent appearance in Oregon entailed a road trip to the wilds of Gales Creek for a chat with Lise Bueschen-Monahan and her 100-or-so goats at Fraga Farmstead Creamery.

Goats rule.

At least in my private hierarchy of the animal kingdom. How, then, to resist an invitation to visit the Steve Monahan and Lise Bueschen-Monahan’s Fraga Farmstead Creamery? Not possible.

Lise Bueschen-Monahan.

Kathleen Bauer and I bundled up and donned our farm boots one chilly afternoon in January. We climbed into her car (code name: Chili) and headed 30 minutes west, to where the fringe of suburbanization meets wide open farmland. A bit further, to the south, before the road wants to rise into the Tillamook forest, lies a farm with a pond, a red barn and dense stand of pines trees.

Here a herd of 100-plus female goats roam a shady evergreen forest, rubbing themselves and their horns against the trunks of trees. They come running as a pack when Lise strides into the large open field and calls out to them: “Goaties!”

Some of Fraga Farm's goats.

Goats are curious looking things. Like most quadrupeds (and some humans), they have a big midsection supported by four slender appendages. Their heads are triangular. Their eyes are equal parts mischief and interrogation. They’re also set a bit too far apart, leaving us mere humanoids struggling to match their gaze.

They think nothing of strolling up and swarming around you, rubbing their thick bodies against your legs or chewing on your shoelaces as you stand in place to learn the story of the farm.

Goats like—they will often insist upon—your affection. They love to be scratched. However, they can be fickle creatures. They’re all too quick to divest you of their attention when they discern that fresh hay has been laid in the barn.

The farm's red barn and oak trees.

Lise is the goatherd of the family. She is aided by Franklin, a tall, amiable intern who, upon completion of his master’s degree, aims to establish a goat dairy when he returns to his native Ghana.

Lise’s husband Steve is the cheese maker. Together they create a small collection of superb goat milk cheeses—traditional chevre, camembert, feta, and an aged raw milk cheese akin to cheddar—as well as some insanely delicious goat milk caramels.

The quality of the product is not by accident. That’s why Kathleen and I were there: to uncover the method behind the magic.

Lise walking with her "goaties."

It was quiet time on the farm when we visited: a period of relatively little activity when milk production has waned and the busy-ness of kidding season has not yet begun. Kidding season lasts roughly from January through May. About 20 kids are born each year. Some of the does are kept as milkers; the rest of the kids are put up for adoption as pets.

In some industrial goat dairies, the moment kids are born they are taken from their mother and killed so that every drop of mother’s milk is reserved for commercial use. Not a drop, so to speak, is wasted. In contrast, when a kid is born at Fraga, both kid and mother are put in their own enclosure after birth to give them a chance to rest. The kids then nurse for about two months, at which point they are weaned and the mother’s remaining milk is used to make cheese.

This nurturing, natural method of raising goats leads to better cheese. Not to mention a healthy quality of life for the animal. It is fairly well documented that the commercial raising and slaughter of animals for meat and dairy is highly unnatural and traumatic. This trauma ultimately finds its way into the end product—be it meat, cheese, milk or butter.

Fraga Farm's chevre with honey.

“Everything is hormonal,” explains Lise. Birthing, feeding, weaning and milking all are driven by hormones, just as hormones drive interactions between human mothers and their children. When animals are dragged into slaughter or robbed of interaction with their parent or offspring from the moment they’re born, the animal’s normal hormonal processes are disrupted. Moreover, the cramped, unhealthy conditions in which many industrial food animals are raised adds a deeper degree of damage.

The natural, normal processes of grazing, birthing and weaning that take place at Fraga are antithetical to industrial methods. Fraga’s methods are emblematic of a larger food movement which strives to farm with the earth and its inhabitants instead of against it or in perceived domination of it.

The farm's camembert-style cheese.

The methods that small farmers like Lise and Stephen apply result in superior products with a higher cost of production. Unfortunately, the demand to keep retail prices as low as possible while maximizing profit means ethical trade-offs that holistic farmers are not willing to make.  As a result, small farmers face relentless competition from industrial farms and large retailers whose sole objective is to increase their own share of the consumer’s wallet.

When it comes to producing food or dairy, there is an uncomfortable symbiosis between man and animal: we are far more dependent upon them than they are on us. That said, a herd of animals—dairy goats, for instance—requires conscientious care if we’re going to right the current imbalance. These workers require and deserve our diligence and decency.

The same can be said of a bed of vegetables: by nurturing their growth through natural methods such as soil regeneration, which ensures a healthy mix of microbial magic, instead of creating land that’s been fertilized literally to death, the negative trends in industrial farming can be countered.

Farm intern Franklin intends to start a goat dairy in Ghana.

Whether those trends can be reversed is an entirely different argument. Even at a friendly sit-down at a wooden table in a farmhouse. After a tour of the farm and a lengthy visit with the herd in the barn, the three of us retreated to the farmhouse. Warmed by fresh coffee, farm-made made cheese and bread, our degrees of optimism varied. What was agreed upon, though, is that many of us, when we buy food, have a choice: we can choose the cheaper industrial product or we can seek out humane and healthier alternatives.

This is the hard mission of Lise and countless other farmers in the bountiful Northwest: to create those options and stave off the inevitable demise wrought by big ag. It is also the work of Kathleen to provide exposure to these alternatives, to get people to understand where food comes from: to remember that we exist in a web of natural inter-relationships. If we are to eat well, and live well, we have to re-engage with the realities of our food supply.

With Lise and her goats, it's all about the love.

Food labeling, though, is an issue. (And a lengthy, head-spinning side topic.) What, after all, I wonder, is truly organic? What is “free-range”? These neat government labels, written by and for the benefit of commercial producers, do little to truly inform the public. They are guideposts that reveal nothing of the real methods of production behind them, but instead point us in directions we feel obliged to follow.

Are we being misled? This intentional ambiguity is a not just a crisis of conscience but a crisis of health: If the food we put in our mouths is grown in soil denuded of nutrients and nature’s complex, life-giving secrets, and if the animals we eat are abused in their service to us, what are we really putting into our bodies?

* * *

Sam (black), Marilyn (tan), and Jeff. La Mesa, CA, ca 1989.

Author's note: Sam and Marilyn hung out in the chicken enclosure, where they had a homemade house of wood where they slept at night, and a wooden picnic bench and table that they could hop around on. When I’d get home from work or school I’d let them out to run around the yard and climb the giant boulders on the property. Marilyn loved corn chips and a sip of white zinfandel, which perhaps, alas, contributed to her early demise.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Praising the Braise: Choucroute Garnie


It's not often I get to write, "As we drove through the rolling hills from Frankfurt across the German-French border, the towns grew increasingly smaller and older, the buildings more charming and fairy tale-like with stone and moss the predominant textures."

Braising the vegetables.

It was an incredibly long time ago, and our last through the French countryside, a road trip that took us from the Alsace region across to the Loire, then down through the Dordogne with a swing back up to Frankfurt. Our first stop was in an auberge in the tiny town of Riquewihr, one with a traditional Alsatian restaurant on the main floor and rooms for guests on the second floor.

Adding the bacon.

Coming down for dinner that night, we found we'd walked into a special evening featuring that most Alsatian of dishes, choucroute garnie. A long table ran down one side of the room, the length of it piled with the most sweetly fragrant sauerkraut, braised for hours in stock, bay leaves and juniper berries. On top of the sauerkraut were all kinds of sausages from the area, along with slices of smoked ham, whole pork chops and other meats, all of which had been cooked in the braised sauerkraut.

In goes the meat…getting there!

That choucroute (pron. shoo-CROOT) completely changed my attitude toward sauerkraut, which up to that point had always been a tart, vinegary-tasting accompaniment to my grandmother's cabbage rolls, which she called "hoblich" (probably a variation on Ukrainian "holopchi"), or my mother's sauerkraut with hot dogs, her attempt to pay homage to my father's German heritage. In this version, rinsed of most of the salt and sourness, then simmered until meltingly tender, even the most adamant of the sauerkraut averse will rave.

Choucroute Garnie
Loosely adapted from Time-Life Foods of World: Provincial France

6-8 lbs. sauerkraut
1 lb. bacon (optional)*
4 Tbsp. olive oil
2 med. onions, chopped fine
2 Tbsp. garlic, minced
2 c. carrots, cut in 1/4" rounds
1 tart apple, cored and chopped in 1/2" dice
6 c. chicken stock
2 c. dry white wine
1 Tbsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
8 sprigs parsley
3 bay leaves
20 juniper berries
2 lbs. uncooked sausages, like bratwurst
2 lbs. chicken thighs**
3 smoked pork chops
4 1/2" slices ham
Yukon gold potatoes

Preheat the oven to 325°.

Rinse the sauerkraut in several changes of water to get rid of excess salt and vinegar. (Homemade is best, but if that's not available, I like a good commercial brand like Bubbies, containing just cabbage, salt and water.) After rinsing, squeeze it vigorously to get out as much water as possible. Repeat. (Save the fermented juice for all kinds of uses…search for "uses for sauerkraut juice.")

In a heavy 9-qt. casserole or Dutch oven (I used Big Blue), heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic and carrots and sauté for 10 min., stirring often to prevent sticking. Stir in the chopped apple and continue cooking for 2 or 3 min., then stir in the sauerkraut and combine thoroughly. Reduce the heat as low as possible, cover the pot and braise the vegetables for 15 min. Then add the chicken stock, wine, salt, pepper, parsley, bay leaves and juniper berries and stir to combine. Top with bacon, if using. Cover tightly, place on middle rack of the oven and braise for 3 hrs.

After the sauerkraut has braised for 3 hrs., prick the sausages 4 or 5 times and add to the casserole with the chicken thighs, pork chops and ham slices, burying them in the sauerkraut. Cover, return the pot to the oven and braise for 1 to 1 1/2 hrs.

Toward the end of the cooking time, heat a large pot of water till boiling, halve the potatoes and cook till tender.

To serve, transfer the sauerkraut to a deep, heated platter or serving dish, removing the bay leaves and as many of the juniper berries as you can. Mound the meat over the top. Serve with potatoes on the side.

* The last time I made this, I left out the bacon and it was much less fatty. The smoked pork chops and ham made up for any loss of smoky flavor.

** Duck legs or rabbit would also be great in this.

Friday, February 01, 2019

How an Oregon Rancher is Building Soil Health and a Robust Regional Food System


This is my second contribution to Civil Eats' monthly series of profiles of farmers and ranchers who are changing our food system for the benefit of our communities, our health and the environment.

Fourth-generation rancher Cory Carman
holistically manages 5,000-acres
which serve as a model for sustainable meat operations
in the Pacific Northwest.

When Cory Carman returned in 2003 to her family’s ranch in remote Wallowa County in eastern Oregon with a Stanford degree in public policy in hand and a stint on Capitol Hill under her belt, her intention was to stay for the summer, helping her uncle and grandmother with ranch work while she looked for her next job working on public policy. By that fall, though, it was obvious that if she left, the ranch wouldn’t be there for her to come back to.

“They were the only ones left on the ranch,” she said, recalling the heartbreaking specter of how hard her uncle and her grandmother, who was then in her 80s, had to work to barely scrape by. “I think I felt the weight of what they were trying to hold together, and I thought how unfair it was for me to expect that they could just keep it together until I came back someday.”

So she decided to stay.

Carman Ranch began as a few hundred acres Carman’s great-great-grandfather Jacob Weinhard—nephew to the legendary Northwest beer brewer Henry Weinhard—bought for his son Fritz in the early 1900s. Under Carman’s watch, the operation now spans 5,000 acres of grasslands, timbered rangeland, and irrigated valley ground nestled against the dramatic peaks of the Wallowa Mountains. Hawks, eagles, and wildlife greatly outnumber people in this isolated northeastern corner of the state, originally home to the Wal-lam-wat-kain (Wallowa) band of the Nez Perce tribe.

Distinct from most cattle operations in the U.S., Carman’s cattle are 100 percent grass-fed well as grass-finished. (The term “grass-fed” is not regulated, so it can mean that animals have only been briefly pastured before they’re sent to a factory feedlot to be finished.) The ranch primarily produces cattle and pigs, which it mostly markets to wholesale accounts, though it sells a lesser amount of meat as “cow shares”—or quarters of beef ranging from 120 to 180 pounds purchased directly by consumers.

Equally if not more important to Carman, however, is the focus on what she calls the “holistic management” of her land. This involves constantly moving the cattle and paying careful attention to the rate of growth of the animals and grasses. By this system, the steers select the forages they need to grow and gain weight, and the grasses get clipped, trampled down, and fertilized with manure, resulting in fields that are vibrant—they retain water, resist drought, contain abundant organic matter, which contributes nutrients and carbon, and are highly productive without the addition of fertilizer.

Amanda Oborne, vice president of food and farms at Ecotrust, a regional nonprofit organization working on social, economic, and environmental issues, said Carman inspired Ecotrust’s food system work by helping her understand the challenges of creating local beef and pork markets, the complexity of scaling an agricultural business with integrity, and the importance of grasslands and large grazing animals in fighting climate change through carbon drawdown.

Oborne remembers Carman walking her around the fields of the Zumwalt Prairie, a preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy that is on the western boundary of the ranch, and picking at blades of bunch grass as she explained how the native species create pockets of nutrition for migrating birds through the winter, and how the long, perennial roots scaffold a whole cathedral of structure and life under the soil.

“It’s Cory’s ability to tell these stories, to explain the flaws of the dominant system without imbuing judgement or animosity, and to partner across every divide—be it age, gender, class, political philosophy, or hometown—that makes her such an effective and innovative thought leader,” Oborne said.

Introducing Holistic Management

Within a year of returning to the ranch, Carman met and married her husband, Dave Flynn (the couple have since divorced), and started a family, which includes three children, Roan and twins Ione and Emmett.

With a fifth generation of the family living on the ranch, the challenge became not just figuring out how to maintain her family’s business and regenerate the land, but how to leave a viable legacy to pass on to her children.

“You don’t have a ranch so that you can sell it and retire; you have a ranch so you can pass it on—that’s sort of in the DNA,” Carman said. “It’s what gets priority, and [you] grow up knowing that there’s something more important than all of you as individuals.”

While Carman respects her family’s history and that of her neighbors, she is pursuing the inverse of the methods used on most of the nation’s cattle ranches since the middle of the last century—methods also used by her father, who died in a ranching accident when Carman was 14, and by her uncle who took over.

“It was the fertilizer era,” Carman noted of her uncle’s initial resistance to the idea of leaving forage in the pastures. “It’s like in those first few decades when fertilizer worked really, really well. You could just take everything off of the land that you could possibly grow and sell it—and then pour more fertilizer back on. And it worked. Until it didn’t.”

With an eye toward her legacy, Carman went to her uncle with the idea of raising grass-fed beef. “I will never forget what he told me,” she said. “He said, ‘Why don’t you do something people like? What about jerky?’”

The thing that she knew—and that her uncle didn’t—was that there were people in more urban areas who were willing to pay a premium for healthy food. “He had no context,” Carman said. “It’s a paradigm shift.”

Read the rest of the article to find out how Carman has begun to build a robust regional food economy with beef as the elegant nexus of the issues.

Read more of my articles for Civil Eats, including a profile of dairy farmer Jon Bansen, and an examination of the damage that factory farm dairies have done to communities in Oregon and around the country. Photos of Cory Carman copyright Nolan Calisch; photos of cattle and sign by John Valls; used courtesy of Carman Ranch.