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pasta with feta, basil and roasted cherry tomatoes

We hadn’t had farm dinner for a few weeks, and though I wouldn’t admit it to any of the other apprentices, I actually missed “questions around the farm table.” Not only have we had such recent gems as “What’s your favorite stuffed animal?” (courtesy of our neighborhood five-year-old) but I enjoy the way farm dinner questions give me an excuse to reflect on the meaningful things in life (what was the cheapest thing I bought and loved, and where is that prom dress now?).

Questions can’t be repeated, and unfortunately I missed that pageant standby, “how would you describe your perfect day?”  For me the answer would look something like this past Saturday, which I spent in Napa wine country with my close friend and food and writing mentor Rachel. Waking up in the guest cottage of the beautiful Ehler Vineyards we must have looked like kids locked in a toy store: racing around with our cameras, picking chard and Sungold tomatoes from the garden for breakfast, eating grapes off the vine and oohing appreciatively at each new view. With most of my friends I have to keep my rampant enthusiasm in check, but with Rachel I have no such worries—when it comes to food or running or just enjoying being outside, she’s as ready to be delighted about life as I am.

And really, enthusiasm can take you far. After trying dozens of free samples at the Napa farmers market and spending half an hour inhaling spices from Anise to Zaatar at the nearby Oxbow Public Market, we even biked to a winery and crashed their release party, our smiling faces somewhat obscured by large bike helmets but visibly eager enough for the gate-keeper to let us in. Then there was olive oil and coconut gelato in St. Helena, and the evening spent barbequing eggplant and chicken sausages with my family. As we drank wine and ate cheese with olive pesto on the front porch of our little house, I could almost imagine for a moment that we owned the place.

Getting away is always exciting, but one of the hidden rewards I’ve come to appreciate about trips is the feeling you get when you return to everyday life. You’re away for a few days, and suddenly things seem just a bit more special, like unexpectedly finding  a worn sweater you’d lost bunched up under the bed. I was thinking about that as I roasted cherry tomatoes and cooked pasta for farm dinner last night, and when the night’s question was “how would you describe the farm?” I didn’t have to hesitate.

The farm feels like home.

Pasta with Feta, Basil, and Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

1 lb corkscrew or farfalle pasta

assortment of cherry tomatoes

2 inch cube of feta

several generous handfuls basil, chopped

olive oil

salt & pepper

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. Rinse cherry tomatoes and arrange on a large baking sheet; drizzle liberally with olive oil and put in a 400 degree oven until golden and slightly shriveled (don’t worry when lots of juice comes out). In a small bowl, mash the feta with the chopped basil to make a paste, then add olive oil, salt and pepper. Cook pasta until al dente then stir pasta, your basil-feta mixture, and the roasted cherry tomatoes and serve warm.

salad of mustard greens, soft feta, tomato and nasturtium

Most days I don’t tend to think of farm life as remote, and it’s certainly no harkening back to Little House on the Prairie. Half of us apprentices have smart phones, our weekly schedule is accessible via Google Docs, and with the newly installed Playstation at the cottage the shrieks of animated zombies can be heard every so often while I’m making dinner in the kitchen. Yes, we make cheese and engage in various other homesteading activities (shooting squirrels, anyone?) but all in all the farm is a thoroughly modern operation, complete with facebook page and twitter account.

This week, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways the farm is a return to earlier times, at least for those of us who live here. There’s something about living and working in the same place that makes the happenings of the wider world grow slightly hazy—I wake up early, work a full day in the garden, do evening chores and then sit around talking and eating with the same people I’ve spent the day working with. It’s a community so rooted in place that it can feel a bit strange picking up a cellphone or answering an email, and sometimes I wonder if this is how it used to be: your whole life bound up in a single communal place and purpose.

Added to that is the fact that visitors often appear with little explanation, like travelers from afar. The guy with nice shoes from Taipei who rolled up his dress slacks to help us amend beds and stayed three days in the garden? As it turned out, he was a chef from a two-Michelin star restaurant in LA who had cooked for Chinese dignitaries and had a case of knives worth $5000. Day one I was  giving him a tour, wondering why he knew so much about litchi tomatoes and oyster lettuce, day two he joined us for fried green tomatoes and bobotie, and day three he had commanded our apprentices’ kitchen, searing salmon belly and roasting a chicken in my cast iron. Watching him chop an onion in 5 seconds flat as we all sat wide-eyed in the kitchen, I had to wonder—would this happen anywhere else? Living as a small farm community we welcome people, allow them to surprise us, and watch them go, and along the way I learn just what it means to belong to a place in the oldest sense of the word.

Salad of Mustard Greens, Soft Feta, Tomato and Nasturtium

Everything in this salad came from the farm–the mustard greens I sow weekly for the restaurant, tomatoes and nasturtium flowers from the recent harvest, and feta that we used before it had been aged. Any soft, fresh cheese like burrata will do just as well, and if you can’t find nasturtium flowers in your neighborhood (they grow like a weed!) planting them is a snap.

selection of small greens like mustards, baby spinach, and little bok choy

fresh, soft cheese

several ripe tomatoes

nasturtium flowers

1/2 onion, finely chopped

dijon mustard

honey

balsamic vinegar

olive oil

salt and pepper

In a small bowl, mix chopped onion, honey, and dijon mustard, then combine with balsamic and salt and pepper. Whisking constantly, pour in olive oil and mix until vinaigrette is thick and creamy.

Arrange your greens in a mound in a bowl or platter, and set tomatoes in a ring around the edge. Crumble cheese over the top, and garnish with nasturtium blossoms. Sprinkle vinaigrette on top or serve on the side.

almond crumb cobbler with nectarines and plums

The first time I walked into the kitchen in our apprentices’ cottage, I was more than a little apprehensive. With my cast iron skillet under one arm and a bag of groceries under the other, I surveyed my new home: the condiments and margarita mix piled on a ledge overhanging the oven, the leaning tower of drying rack, the linoleum muddied from countless dirty tennis shoes. There was even a piece of shriveled cactus suspended between two curtain-less curtain rods. I took the seat offered by Lisette and the beer offered by Phillip, then I looked around the room one more time and decided I liked it.

To be sure, the odds were stacked in our little kitchen’s favor. In every place I’ve lived the kitchen has felt most like home, and I take up residence there before I unpack my clothes or make up my bed. The size or lighting of a bedroom doesn’t mean all that much when you’re sleeping, but the kitchen is where you live—cooking, eating, sitting at the table on a Saturday morning with David Sedaris and a lukewarm cup of tea. It may be a bit cramped (when we’re all seated for dinner you can barely open the oven), but our kitchen never fails to charm me with its tile-topped table and pair of large windows with a view of the wild turkeys roosting in the adjacent grove of redwoods.

When I’m alone in the kitchen I’ll sit in the same spot for hours, but once other people start cooking it’s like a sneeze—I have to do it as well. If Ross or Phillip has already started dinner my backup plan is dessert, which means that though I’m really more of a cook my baking skills have taken a marked turn for the better here. The size of our kitchen does make it difficult—I found myself making bread pudding on the dryer one night—but it gives me the satisfaction of something to do with myself and the Costco-sized bags of flour and sugar in our pantry.

This was the backstory of the crumble I was making the other night, and while Phillip fried tempura-battered pieces of green tomato and broccoli I sliced away at nectarines and plums and cut my finger (again) on the blade of our food-processor grinding butter, oats, and almonds. I slid the pie dish into the oven as we started in on our fried chicken, but when dessert time rolled around the top still didn’t have that golden crispness every crumble needs. Ross suggested putting it under the broiler for a minute or two, and with the oven door closed we all went back to laughing like fourth graders at a particularly unfortunately shaped tomato.

Ten minutes later, the smoke began. Pouring from under the stovetop it gushed out as I flung open the oven door to see a crumble lost beneath a foot of flames. In a moment everyone was in emergency mode: Christine and Adam pulled back the chairs, Phillip commandeered the dish-washing hose at the sink, Ross grabbed hand towels to smother the flames. Me? I don’t remember much, but apparently I stood in the middle of it all lamely flapping an oven-mitt and crying out “Oh no! Oh no!” at regular intervals. And as we sat on the stoop minutes later replacing the blackened oat topping with giant spoonfuls of ice cream, I said a little prayer of thanks that I have friends whose cool heads meant our kitchen would live to see another day.

Almond Crumb Cobbler with Nectarines and Plums

3 ripe white nectarines

2 ripe plums

6 Tbsp butter

1/2 cup flour

1/2 cup oats

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup almonds plus a few more for sprinkling on top

cinnamon

nutmeg

vanilla extract

salt

Slice the nectarines and plums and arrange on the bottom of a 9″ glass pie dish. In a food processor mix butter, flour, oats, sugar, almonds and spices, grinding until the mixture becomes a moist crumb. Sprinkle crumble on top of fruit and give the dish a shake, then sprinkle with a few almonds and a pinch or two of salt before baking in a 350 degree oven until the top is a perfect golden brown. (Resist the urge to use the broiler. Trust me.)

the best way to eat a ripe tomato

The season of the tomato has arrived.

This season holds no small meaning for Love Apple, a farm named for the fruit I used to believe was red and round. This week, after a spell of perfect hot summer days, I lost that illusion for good—here tomatoes are orange, pink, black, gold, green and white, their shape long like a sausage or accommodating fantastic bulges. I always knew that tomatoes were Cynthia’s specialty, the cultivated passion that led the farm into the relationship it has with Manresa today. Now I finally understand: there are so many experiences a tomato can offer, and its season is the time to relish that variety.

With one season arriving, one has also drawn to a close. My friend and roommate Lisette left the farm this week, and as we all spent Saturday night drinking pitchers of IPA in downtown Santa Cruz we had our own little version of “farm dinner questions” to celebrate her time here. She asked us to remember a time we’d laughed with (or at) her, and the stories that came up were all of the “only on the farm…” variety, from dancing in the greenhouse on a winter’s morning to an episode I can only describe as involving zucchinis and a toilet. For my part, when I think of Lisette I remember the way she always greeted me with an enthusiastic “Miss B!” when we crossed paths in the garden. I’d never had a nickname from a friend before (“Sara” being somewhat lacking in wordplay potential), and it made me grin almost as much as I would when we’d sit in the kitchen after dinner giggling hysterically over Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder.

Lisette was the most knowledgeable among us apprentices when it came to the tomatoes on the farm, so it is in her honor that I want to share my favorite way of eating a ripe tomato. Nothing fussy, it’s something I’ve had every day this week for lunch. In fact I had to make it three times before I could photograph it today–not because it had to be perfect, but because I was hungry and found myself unable to resist a bite before I had the chance to get my camera.

The Best Way to Eat a Ripe Tomato

The key here is ingredients: ripe tomato, creamy avocado, good bread and a nice salty piece of cheese.

1 large ripe tomato

1/2 ripe avocado

slice of German wheat bread

1 or 2 slices of aged gouda or parmesan

salt & pepper

Toast your bread until crispy and golden, then layer with sliced avocado, thick slices of tomato, and cheese. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and enjoy!

goat cheese gnocchi with thyme

One of the most important things I’ve discovered about farming food as opposed to buying it is—surprise!—seasonality. Eating seasonally sounds all well and good on a farm-to-table menu, but on a farm itself it’s less glamor and more what am I going to do with 2 giant zucchinis a day for the next three months running? As a cook you have to get creative (or just really like zucchini bread), and while it’s true that inspiration strikes, I’ve found it’s helpful to have a few good lightning bolts on hand for days when my creativity needs a little extra sizzle.

My particular arsenal of lightning bolts is divided into two related camps: great cookbooks and favorite food blogs. As you know I’m a sucker for books, not just for the recipes but for the thick pages, the thematic presentation, and the pictures so perfect you could eat them right off those thick pages. Cookbooks aren’t just selling you food, they’re selling you a scene in which you are an active participant—cook these meals, and you too can be a roaster of goats or a forager in Denmark. There’s nothing quite like spending an hour or two in a bookstore browsing through the cookbook collection, imagining yourself inhabiting the world of food each book creates.

That being said, food blogs also have something unique to offer. It’s exciting to follow someone’s journey with food, checking every day to see what new breakthroughs they’ve made or ingredients they’ve discovered. With my cookbooks I carefully plan the feast I’ll make, purchasing everything I need and laying it out on the kitchen counter. With food blogs it’s much more spontaneous: I browse until I find a recipe that catches my eye, then play with it to make it fit what we have in the pantry. And when we’re overwhelmed with one ingredient—as we often are—I turn to both book and blog for inspiration. Case in point? While I’ve happily eaten goat cheese on toast with avocado for the past few weeks, Sprouted Kitchen’s yogurt and goat cheese tart laced with plum and the tangy goat cheese gnocchi from my newest cookbook Chefs on the Farm were much more fun uses of chevre.

Need inspiration? Here are a few of my favorites:

The New York Times columns by Mark Bittman and David Tanis—you can take the girl out of New York but you can’t take the New York Times out of the girl.

Lucky Peach—the new (and deliciously entertaining) quarterly journal from David Chang of Momofuku fame.

101 Cookbooks—the grande dame of food blogging, Heidi made my college cooking something to write home about.

Smitten Kitchen—one word: desserts. Well, maybe two: empanadas.

Sprouted Kitchen—my current photography inspiration and oh-so-lovely.

Jeni’s Ice Creams—I was drooling (literally) over her book in Bookstore Santa Cruz the other day, and this recipe did not disappoint.

One Bite World—my dear friend Rachel’s wonderful journal of food and running.

Goat Cheese Gnocchi with Thyme

I adapted this from Quillisascut Farm’s recipe for ricotta gnocchi, and the results with goat cheese were fine indeed.

4 cups chevre

1 egg

2 cups flour

4 Tbsp thyme, chopped

1 Tbsp nutmeg

salt & pepper

Salt a large pot of water and bring it to a boil. Combine all ingredients in a bowl until well mixed, using your hands to shape the dough into a ball. Pull off a small piece of dough and test it by dropping into the water and letting it rise to the surface when done; taste and check for seasoning. To make the gnocchi, pull off a hand-sized piece of dough and roll it into a long tube, then cut your roll into bite-sized pieces. Use a fork to make an impression on the top of each piece–this will catch your sauce. Cook pieces in boiling water as before, waiting for them to rise to the surface and cooling on a plate. Serve with a tomato sauce with rosemary or a little browned butter.

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