Is It Spring?

Normally, I’m a red wine kind of gal, but National Margarita Day and unseasonably warm, spring-like weather has me craving cocktails and mixed drinks. I had set out to make a margarita one evening, but ended up making my favorite mojito instead. They are relatively low calorie and low carb. Not too much sugar and I use fresh ingredients. I have a weak spot for a well made mojito.

Muddle 1/4 lime wedges and 8 to 10 mint leaves in a glass.

Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of mint infused simple syrup,

1 to 1 and 1/2 shots of white rum and

a few dashes of Angostura Bitters (optional).

Fill glass 3/4 full with ice.

Top off with seltzer; then shake or stir well.

I’ve been experimenting with vanilla vodka. I bought some vanilla beans a few months ago to make my own vanilla extract and still have plenty leftover. I’ve been hearing a lot about vanilla vodka lately and thought I’d make my own. It’s the same method I use to make vanilla extract, only it takes a lot less vanilla and time. After a week to ten days it was ready for drinks, but two weeks later it was even better.

I have a long list of drinks I want to make with my vanilla vodka. I’m unsure about a few of them. I tried it with lightly sweetened tea. Not good. I rarely drink soda, but I have found a few small, local soda makers that use better ingredients. I mixed a shot of vanilla vodka with half a bottle of Uncle Scott’s Natural Root Beer (made in Mooresville, NC). Tasted like a root beer float and took me back to my first job at an ice cream shop in Eastland Mall. I also tried it with some old fashioned ginger ale (Blenheim, made in South Carolina, and Boylan made in NJ). Hello cream soda. Mmmmm… But because it’s so sugary, this drink is dessert. It’s a treat I won’t indulge in frequently.

Linsey had a request last week. She wanted barbecue and that was just fine with me. I couldn’t make it to the farmers market for our usual Grateful Growers pork shoulder, so I tried it with free range, organic chicken breasts from Trader Joe’s instead. I cooked it slow and low in lime juice, a little pomegranate juice, basil infused rum, garlic, salt and pepper. Then when it was fully cooked, I turned the heat up to let most of the liquid reduce down. The meat gets browned and caramelized and chewy on the outside. But after I used two forks to shred it, I knew it was too dry. Pork has lots more fat, and that’s why it makes such good barbecue. So I added several tablespoons of the pastured bacon lard, which I always have on hand and let it cook, low and covered for another fifteen minutes. The chicken was moist and tender, the way barbecue ought to be. It had a subtly different flavor which we all enjoyed. It was a nice change and a good experiment. I served it with roasted potatoes and cauliflower and my favorite sweet and sour slaw with fennel, onion, red peppers and cabbage.

Spring and warm weather makes me want to slow down. We’re not even into spring quite yet, and already I’m looking forward to long summer vacation days with no schedule to keep. The kids were out of school for two days a couple weeks ago. We spent one lazy evening making pasta, from scratch. Haleigh was bored and sulking because she’s grounded and couldn’t go with her sister and her father to run a few errands. Being a parent sucks sometimes. Even though the punishment was deserved, my heart hurt for her. So I let her roll out the pasta. I’ll admit that I didn’t think she’d have much success with this temperamental machine, but she cranked it out. She had fun. She got the hang of it quickly and had every right to be proud of that. And I was free to prepare the other ingredients. We enjoyed each others company. Cooking, talking and laughing with her in the kitchen like that was exactly how I envisioned it. There will be lots more meals prepared this way now that the girls are growing up.

This weekend time changes and the clocks spring forward. We’ll have another hour of sunlight in the evenings. It takes some getting used to. We’ll probably spend a lot of that time outdoors on sunny days, and we’ll inevitably lose track of time. I welcome those days.

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Tampa, Food and Surprises

Last week we visited my sister and her family in Tampa, FL. What a beautiful city! The weather was perfect. It was a nice 85 degrees most of the trip and the humidity hasn’t set in yet. We visited Tampa’s Lowery Park Zoo. This is the best zoo I’ve ever been to. Sadly Linsey and Brian missed out on it this trip. Linsey contracted a stomach virus and they had to leave almost as soon as we entered. She broke our hearts, crying in disappointment and discomfort when she finally decided to throw in the towel and go home. She’d been looking forward to the trip all week. She is finally feeling like herself again, five days later.

Next to the sick kiddos, the hardest part of the trip was finding real food. Luckily Tampa, just like Charlotte, has also been affected by the slow food movement. And thanks to a long growing season, it was no surprise that there were several local, organic, real food restaurants to choose from. Unfortunately many of them were expensive and too upscale for kids (of course) or inconvenient while vacationing and on the road. We shopped at Greenwise (Publix version of Whole Foods) for groceries. We found some grass fed beef there, which we used to make delicious burgers one night, and most of our usual staples. I wish Harris Teeter would open a similar, greener and healthier version of their stores. Maybe they could do it better. I still see things at Whole Foods and Greenwise that shouldn’t be on their shelves – typically in the middle aisles, where there is still too much processed food.

My sister planned a secret girls’ night out for us while we were there. What a surprise! She took me to a cooking store of sorts. They sell cooking supplies, but they also have a kitchen in the back where they have classes and demonstrations (fun!). Everyone was so nice. They had an “instructor” there that was into natural cooking. I so want to be in her class. The owner, our host, was funny and very entertaining and the “bartender” – a sweet, 70-something year old southern belle with bright red hair – carded me. (That’s right! As in asked-for-ID.) We were there for a charity event benefiting a temporary home for kids who are abused, neglected, etc. There was food and wine and shopping for cooking supplies at a 10% discount… yipee! If this store were in Charlotte I would definitely look into cooking classes or demonstrations. In fact there must be something like it here. I’ll be looking into that soon. Thank you so much Heather for a fun, memorable night.

Another surprise (I’m switching gears now) was a full-fledged, small, private farm smack in the middle of Heather’s residential neighborhood. We walked to it – twice. They sell fresh, pastured eggs, raw milk, honey and a few other things. The coolest thing is that you can just walk onto the farm and check it out. The first time we went a little girl that lived next door was our tour guide. There were chickens running around everywhere. The cows were in a small pasture and a few pigs were in a pen (not a good one on any level). We got there at milking time, so the girls (and I) got to watch the entire process – moving the cow into the stall, feeding it hay to keep it calm and happy, cleaning the underside and hooves of the cow and then attaching the pump to the udders. I was hoping they would offer us a taste. I wish I’d asked. I really want to taste the warm milk, fresh from the cow, just as it is described in a book  I recently read Growing a Farmer  by Kurt Timmermeister. It was neat to see the things I had read about in action. I’ve visited farms before, but not since reading this book and not on this small, yet diverse scale. The first time we only went for the orange blossom honey. It was yummy with a light floral taste and a hint of citrus. It’s even slightly orange compared to other honey. (Click here for an interesting article about the farmer, Marion Lambert, and his honey.)

Here a cluck. There a cluck. Everywhere a cluck, cluck.

Later in the week we needed eggs, so we decided to visit again. The girls were so excited and Brian wanted to see the farm as well. This time I brought my camera. We ran into the farmer on this trip, Marion Lambert. He explained in more detail what the cows ate -mostly alfalfa and grain. I wouldn’t exactly call these grass fed, though they are pastured cows. He only has a few acres, not enough to grass feed his small herd. And he doesn’t use organic feed. This is a simple farm. Not the idyllic, perfect one I have in my head. There are only a handful of those. But still, this is a natural farm. One I’d be happy to support if I lived nearby.

Several neighbors help out on the farm. The first time we visited we met a mother and daughter that volunteer and also benefit from the farm. They were walking and feeding a donkey who had some health issues. She mentioned that one of the pigs were hers. Which brings me to one thing on this farm that I would not support. The pigs are not well cared for. (It’s always the poor pigs that are mistreated! Usually the smartest and probably most aware animals on a farm.) There are three or four of them in a small pin, lined with some sort of metal floor along most of the pen. The back side is not lined with metal, and this is the pigs only mud source. There is no shade and no place for them to root – a pigs favorite past time. They looked listless and sad and they were filthy (pigs are surprisingly clean animals). I know that pigs are tough to care for, but it didn’t seem like anyone really cared at all. I wanted to ask about it, but I thought it would be rude to mention it on my first or second visit to the farm. Then again, maybe it wasn’t right after all – to keep quiet and look past the cruelty to the pigs, even though everything else on the farm seemed pretty good – and just to be polite.

It was a good trip (as usual). Visiting family is always fun, but when they live in a beautiful city like Tampa, it’s even better. During the week, when my sister and her husband were working anyway, we also visited Naples for few days. Wow! Great hotel, great location and a beautiful sunset. (More on that in a future post.)

Ballast Point Park in Tampa

Ballast Point Park in Tampa

KYFT 2010

This weekend the girls and I, and a few of our friends, visited seven farms during the the Know Your Farms Tour. Twenty-seven local farms participated. Saturday we visited three: Birdbrain Ostrich Ranch, Grateful Growers Farm and Lewis Farm/Carolina Cattle Co. The ostrich farm was our first stop. The little guys were so cute. We sampled some ostrich meatballs. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but ostrich is nothing like the poultry I’m used to. If someone had told me I was eating beef, I would’ve believed them. Lewis Farms was more fun for the kids. They fed hay to the horses and there was a hayride tour.

The highlight for me on Saturday was visiting Grateful Growers. If you’ve read any of my earlier entries, you probably know that this is who I buy pork products from at the Matthews Farmers Market. It was nice to visit a farm that actually provides food for our family, and it was the only one we visited this go round. Linsey was very excited when she recognized Natalie from the market. I though we’d just be seeing a lot of happy pigs, but it turns out they grow other things as well for their own consumption: chickens, turkeys, mushrooms!! We ate lunch from their Harvest Moon Grille concession trailor. The GGQ (Grateful Growers pork barbecue) was good, but the pork burger with sriacha aioli and cheddar cheese on a homemade yeast roll – was devine! It would have been even better with the tomato. Haleigh ordered it without. This place has been highly rated (and not just by me), so if you’re ever in uptown Charlotte, hunt this orange concession trailer down!!

On Sunday we visited four farms that were really close together: Hartsell Farms, Bame Farms, Wild Turkey Farms and Landis Gourmet Mushroom (which is actually in an old cotton mill). We saw Fainting Goats, Belted Galloway Cattle and Gulf Coast Sheep (all endangered breeds) at Hartsell Farms. This is where I realized I had never really tried lamb before. I wish I’d though of it before we left and bought some while we were there. As soon as I figure out how to order some local, humanely treated lamb, I’m going to attempt cooking it.

Bame Farms was a small operation. The girls enjoyed playing with the antique corn sheller and grinder, but this is not the type of farm I want to support, at least until things improve for the pigs. I was really disappointed at how they were treated here. The pen was too small and the entire thing was just one large muddy mess, which I’m sure included the pigs’ own waste. This is better than a CAFO on a factory farm, I guess. But the chickens that we saw on the entire tour had better living arrangements than these poor pigs. I’m not saying that pigs should be treated better than chickens. However, this farmer claims that he grows the pigs to around 150 pounds (although they can get much larger). At best, that’s about 145 pounds more animal than a nice sized chicken. These guys need way more room to run than chickens do.

There were at least two faucets with water trickling out constantly and the pigs were completely covered in this dark mud/urine/poo mixture. (I’ll admit that the pen didn’t smell as bad as it looked.) The pen was no more than 10′ x 10′ and only about 3 feet high. It was covered, so the pigs wouldn’t have to worry about getting too hot. But pigs are smart and playful and enjoy running around every now and then. That was clear on every other farm that we visited. I wonder if these poor guys ever have the chance to set their feet on dry land (or whether some of them could even walk at all). Moving around in that gooey muck can’t be easy. If I remember correctly, they are fed mostly corn, which is not good. One of them appeared to be sick or injured. When asked about the pig, the farmer said he didn’t want to take it to the vet, because he feared they’d tell him to put it down. I’m not sure if he was looking out for the pig or his investment, but the pig should have been isolated from the others at the very least.

Wild Turkey Farms in China Grove was my favorite, by far. When I dream up an ideal, sustainable farm, this is pretty close to what I imagine. Everything they do here is done with care and respect for the animals, the environment and the consumer. The are even Animal Welfare Approved. All of the animals were pastured. The pigs live in huge, uncovered pens with a couple mud holes and ark shelters. There is plenty of grass under their feet. The cows roam in a huge pasture. While on our hayride tour of the farm, we could see them at a distance, relaxing under the cool shade of some trees, along with some protection – a llama (a couple of dogs also help with this). According to the farmer, llamas are extremely territorial and can sense an intruder from much further away than the cows can. They are also pretty fierce toward unwanted guests. The chickens also had nice sized pens on the pasture. The turkeys pen was a little smaller, but I’m pretty sure it’s due to their frailty. According to two different farmers on the tour, they are more difficult to keep alive and one of them isn’t planning to raise them anymore.

When one of the guests asked about slaughtering, which can be a touchy subject, the farmer didn’t flinch. The slaughtering company was in North Carolina and is family run. Based on what I had seen and heard so far, I believed him when he said it was a company he could trust to do the job with respect. I am considering ordering meat from this farm just to show my support for their high ethical standards. Standards so high, that some of their own family members and other farmers have given them a hard time about it. (Haters!)

The $25 that we paid for the ticket covered as many people as we could fit in one vehicle for both days. What a bargain. This annual tour will become a tradition for us. I highly recommend it, especially if you have kids. Even if you don’t care about the food aspect, this tour is such a fun learning experience.

Happy Grateful Growers Piglets

By the way, did you that NC is second only to Iowa in pig production, and that Smithfield is the nations largest pork producer. I wonder how Paula Deen feels about CAFO’s… Anyway, I won’t get all political on you, but if you’re interested in knowing how poorly these pigs are treated or how the waste is affecting the water supply, read this (please click the link), or do you own research.