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shepherd’s pie

The other evening as I grabbed my camera for what’s become a ritual of last-minute dinner photography (“Wait! Nobody touch the food!”) Sam delivered some sage advice: “You need more people in your pictures.” Yes, the chickens are lovely, but it really is the people at Love Apple that make it so much fun to be (and eat) here, and truth be told, all my fellow apprentices are great cooks. Ellen makes a mean quiche. Christine does a gooey tortilla casserole. Sam bakes fragrant orange scones. Lisette whips up creamy peanut butter avocado dressing. Zach does a spot-on version of Pim’s onion tart. Ross makes incredible sautéed mushrooms. And Phillip makes good everything (out of anything in the pantry—I never cease to be amazed). We eat well here every night, and over the past few weeks I’ve learned as much about making good food as I have in the past year.

I’ve also learned a lot about enjoying food. I admit: I’ve been through several stages in my life where friends took one look at the things I cooked and labeled me a health nut. The first of these episodes occurred early in life—I have a distinct memory of my 13-year-old self substituting olive oil for butter and ending up with a lemon loaf that resembled an oozing brick. Growing up a girl in image-conscious Southern California (or anywhere, for that matter) it can be hard not to develop a controlling attitude towards food, be it what you’re eating or how much of it. Fortunately for me, I discovered life just isn’t worth getting up in the morning if you don’t find pleasure in what you eat.

I have many eating pleasures, whether they be fried eggs in oatmeal, ramen from New York’s Ippudo, or cardamom pistachio ice cream from my new favorite place in Santa Cruz, The Penny Ice Creamery. The pleasures I’ve found here on the farm consist of deliciously hearty meals that usually at least three of us have a hand in, flavored with a healthy dollop of butter or bacon (my cast iron pan loves it) and seasoned with the appetites we build up working outside eight hours a day. As with the shepherd’s pie we had the other night, each meal is a bit of an adventure—some oyster sauce here, a little sliced avocado there—but that only makes it all the more enjoyable. And speaking of enjoying food, no feast at the table outside the cottage would be complete without a glass (or mason jar, or plastic child’s cup) of wine from our dear friend Charles Shaw.

Shepherd’s Pie

Shepherd’s Pie is the ultimate vehicle for improvisation—make your mashed potatoes just how you like them, and taste and season the filling as you’re going along. This is the recipe for a more traditional meat version (we used ground turkey), but we also made a veggie version for the vegetarians among us with onions, corn, broccoli, and canned tomatoes.

1 medium onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 lb ground turkey

1 cup corn kernels

Salt and pepper

1 tsp red chili flakes

2 Tbsps oyster sauce

1 cup chicken broth

A few Tbsps flour

A generous helping of mashed potatoes

Shredded cheddar cheese

1 avocado, sliced

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. In a large saucepan or skillet, sauté the onions over medium heat until translucent, then add in minced garlic. Add the ground turkey next and break up with a wooden spoon, browning the meat nicely. Stir in the corn, and season to your liking with salt, pepper, chili flakes and oyster sauce. Pour in the broth and turn the heat to medium-low, simmering and adding enough flour to thicken the juices. Meanwhile, assemble your mashed potatoes (Ross made ours with butter, goats’ milk, and garlic—use your favorite). When the liquid from the stock turns nice and gooey, turn of the heat and spread the potatoes in a thick layer on top of the meat (if your skillet isn’t oven-proof transfer meat to a baking dish first). Sprinkle the potatoes with shredded cheddar and bake until the cheese is melted and the liquid from the meat is bubbling up around the edges. Garnish with avocado slices and serve.

spaghetti carbonara

My tenure as chicken foreman started out well. I was doing my share of egg collecting, keeping an eye out for the crafty hens that mysteriously appear outside the 10-foot pasture fence, and remembering (for the most part) to remind my fellow apprentices to close the main coop at night. I had even taken to letting the girls out at 6 a.m. before my daily laps round the loop at the bottom of the farm driveway. (I run this early so my friends at Love Apple don’t think I’m one of those crazies who blabbers on about runner’s high, but I’ll come clean here and just admit that I am.)

All in all, things seemed to be working out nicely for me with my new assignment. I couldn’t help but admire the chickens in the small coop as I went to collect the eggs there several afternoons ago—though they’re older than the 60 young hens in the main coop, the 10 of them present a lovely picture of speckled, gold, and silvery lavender. As I opened the door and walked up to the laying boxes, I looked at them fondly: they were so peaceful clucking gently around my ankles. I’d forgotten a basket for the eggs, but I made a loose pouch with the front of my t-shirt and began collecting, gathering seven before confidently stretching towards the last box for the remaining two. Unfortunately, then my grip slipped.

It was bad enough that I dropped all seven eggs, which fell in a noisy splatter at my feet. But the chickens (did I call them peaceful?)—they were the real shock. With a din of cackling I was attacked on all sides, beady-eyed heads ravenously devouring the yolks and snapping at the shells. One got a particularly good bite and, with a glop of egg white hanging comically from its beak, took off for a victory lap with several contenders in tow. It was all over in about 15 seconds, but I stood immobilized for minute before grabbing the last two eggs and hurrying down to the garden tent, where my cottage mate Christine surveyed them suspiciously. “There were only two eggs today?” she asked. And then I did something that I’m ashamed to admit—I lied. “Just two. Those older chickens must be really slowing down, huh?”

My egg carnage incident aside, up at the cottage we sometimes struggle to make it through the 60 or so eggs the farm gets each day. Any dish that uses more than a handful is primed for repetition, which is why when Ross and I struck upon spaghetti carbonara the other night I knew we had a winner. We did, evidenced by the fact that I had four servings, then came back to scrape the bowl. And really, that’s why I run—the best part of the runner’s high I know is the wonderful eating that follows.

Ross’ Spaghetti Carbonara

As with all recipes that have few ingredients, quality is key—farms eggs (especially the double-yolkers) are naturally delicious, and we were lucky enough to have Niman Ranch bacon. We didn’t have any parmesan and the results were still amazing, but if you do I’d throw some in—you won’t regret it.

6 eggs

4 slices bacon, cut into small pieces

1 medium onion, sliced

3 cloves garlic, crushed

¼ cup milk

17 oz spaghetti (one package)

parmesan or pecorino romano (optional)

Separate the egg yolks from the whites, putting the whites aside, then beat the yolks until mixed and add the milk to thin. Heat a large saucepan over medium heat and add the bacon, rendering until brown but not crispy. Add the onions and caramelize (you can add a bit of water if the pan gets too dry), then add the garlic to sweat for a few minutes and turn off the heat. In a large pot of salted water, cook the pasta until al dente and strain. Add pasta to bacon and onions (check that the saucepan is no longer hot), then pour in the egg yolks and toss until the pasta is creamy.

easy pad thai sauce

First of all I want to welcome all of you who found your way here through my op-ed in the LA Times, and to say a special thank you for your wonderful comments. It was a bit frantic last week, sitting with my laptop across from the chicken pasture at twilight to work on my edits and prepare girl farm kitchen, but I have been so encouraged by the thoughtful responses and kind wishes I received. Here’s to books, reading and writing! (And eating, while we’re at it.)

I’ve written a good number of unfortunate essays, not the least of which was an ode to packing and unpacking the dishwasher. (It began “Every Friday night I unpack the dishwasher,” which should give you an idea of how exciting I was in college.) But as terrible as the essay was, I stand by my love of the dishwasher, and of washing dishes, sponging counter tops, and wiping stains out of teacups. I could say there’s something wonderfully therapeutic about cleaning, and there is, but really I’ll do anything to be in the kitchen.

The fact that I’m happiest with dishtowel in hand means that one of my favorite parts of the week is assisting in Love Apple cooking classes. Starting at 8:00 I vacuum, wipe, sweep, and wash until the kitchen classroom looks fit for a Food Network special. Shortly after 11:00 Pim (of the wonderful blog Chez Pim) glides in, and the counters are suddenly covered with all manner of delicious looking ingredients, macerated apricots or spiced strips of pork for satays. In her perforated red slip-ons and pretty printed tops she is cheerful and friendly, but Pim is no lightweight—she commands the kitchen with a hand that knows the exact amount of sugar needed for a jam, or the perfect pour of oil for a red-hot wok. At least several times each class (usually when I’m furtively tasting leftovers) I’m tempted to cry out “teach me your ways!” but fortunately self-discipline prevails.

This Sunday the class was on Thai cooking, and the ingredients set out in the classroom kitchen included six sauces, an array of exotic vegetables, and about 10 pounds of noodles. Eager to try my hand at what I’d seen between bouts of pot scrubbing, I hurried up to our apprentices’ cottage lugging a generous selection of leftover ingredients, and it was there that we stir fried everything from Chinese broccoli to an old bag of peas. And of course the seven farm eggs per meal we’ve been averaging to keep up with the hens… but more on that next time.

Easy Pad Thai Sauce

Pim’s version—which can be found in her wonderful book The Foodie Handbook—is the real deal, but adapting her recipe to the ingredients I had I came up with something that serves as a tasty and simple version for everyday use in the wok (or pan).

¼ cup rice vinegar

½ cup fish sauce

½ cup palm sugar (a bit less if you use regular sugar)


In a small saucepan, heat rice vinegar and fish sauce over medium heat until gently bubbling. Add palm sugar and dissolve, tasting for your desired balance of salty, sour, and sweet. Turn off the heat and add paprika to taste (as Pim says, it’s good to have just enough to feel at the back of your throat). Use sauce in stir fries with noodles, veggies, or meat.

nice n’ spicy bobotie (among other feasts)

Life on the farm is full of variety. One afternoon I might be tie-dying Love Apple t-shirts listening to reggae covers of the Beatles, the next wielding a machete through head-high thistles to a soundtrack of grunts and yells (it’s good to let the weeds know what’s coming). Yesterday I sowed purple mizuna and arugula in the greenhouse, lovingly covering the seeds with a thin blanket of soil; then I went out into the garden and killed 23 cucumber beetles, squeezing them mercilessly between finger and thumb. To quote one of my favorite movies, it’s the circle of life. (Not that the Lion King included tie-dye and machetes, but you get the idea).

Eating on the farm has been full of variety as well, and the last three nights have been a perfect example of that. Wednesday night we apprentices sat in the kitchen as we often do—hungry and surveying the pantry. What emerged was the kind of feast that happens when everyone around you likes to cook: fried eggplant slices from our master-fryer Phillip, sautéed purple carrots from Christine, a kale salad with basil and my honey mustard dressing, and a leek, chard, pepper and tomato vegetable bake topped with homemade goat cheese from our newest apprentice Ross. Everything came from the farm—excepting our mason jars of two-buck-chuck.

Thursday nights at Love Apple are Farm Dinner, a gathering of apprentices, farm staff, neighbors, and friends. Since Ross came to us from the New York Culinary Institute and several years of restaurant experience he was put on cooking duty, and the meal he came up with was memorable indeed: grilled tri-tip, roasted potatoes, Caesar salad and a collection of fixings for tacos. The entertainment of the evening is always a series of conversational games, and this week as we ate we mulled over what hat we would wear for the rest of our lives and, in the case of death by animal, which animal we would choose. (I went with “mauled by pit bull,” mostly for effect).

Friday night rolled around and I pulled out one of my favorite cooking tools: a “Nice n’ Spicy” packet of spices for the South African dish Bobotie. Coming from a family of South Africans it’s been a favorite of mine for years: ground meat spiced with curry, browned with onions, garlic, and ginger, and baked in the oven after being mixed with milk-soaked bread and eggs. As I carried it outside in the cast iron skillet with the turkeys gobbling in the distance and seven forks raised expectantly around the table, I remembered what I love most about cooking—it’s not just food we get to share, but meals.

Nice N’ Spicy Bobotie

Whenever any friends of my family visit South Africa there’s one request that tops the list: Nice N’ Spicy spice packets. Fortunately for us, with some good curry powder and nice bay leaves the bobotie packet is easy to replicate. For the non-red meat eaters in our group I used ground turkey and it turned out well, but ground beef or lamb is also delicious.

2 lbs ground turkey

2 slices soft bread

1 1/2 cups milk

2 Tbs curry powder

1 large onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 1-inch piece ginger, grated

1/2 cup raisins

1/2 cup slivered almonds

3 eggs

bay leaves

salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Soak the bread in the milk until soft, then strain and reserve leftover milk. Gently mix the bread with the ground meat and curry powder.

In a heavy-bottomed skillet or pot, saute the onions, garlic, and ginger in olive oil or butter until translucent. Add the meat mixture and stir until the meat is nicely browned, then add in the raisins, almonds, half of the reserved milk and one egg. Season with salt and pepper.

Even out the meat in the skillet until you have a flat surface, then beat the remaining 2 eggs with the other half of the reserved milk and pour over the top of the bobotie. Arrange several bay leaves over the top and bake in the oven until the egg mixture on top is well browned, about 30-40 minutes.

spiced tomato eggplant stew

It was 12:24pm. I was watering the hillside when Cynthia approached from across the garden, leading a visitor on a tour of the farm. “Give it three more minutes,” she called up to me, “You need some lunch.” Five minutes later, hose coiled, I was sprinting up the hill to the cottage with the kind of ravenous look one generally associates with lost backpackers emerging from the woods (or maybe seagulls).

As a farm apprentice you don’t feel like lunch, you don’t even want it—you need it. Sometime after noon the seven of us converge on the cottage kitchen, grabbing food from the fridge and unceremoniously clattering plates and cutlery in our haste. Leftovers are the golden ticket—a quick spin in the microwave and you’re through your first three bites before you’ve even taken a breath.

My history with leftovers is rich and varied, beginning with classmates’ wrinkled noses when I opened my Tupperware at school and carrying all the way through college, when I cooked Fridays and Mondays and ate my curries and soups with relish for three days straight. I’ve always been of the opinion that the worse leftovers look the better they taste, and it’s only a handful of times (notably the week-old burrito incident) that my theory has proved wrong. Today, however, I can proudly declare my leftovers have entered a new chapter. Gorging on cold eggplant stew was a sort of food heaven, the kind where every bite restores mental and physical acuity. Full disclosure: I plotted my lunch escape five minutes early. When cold stew’s involved, I take no chances.

Spiced Tomato Eggplant Stew

Adapted from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals by Maria Speck

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 medium eggplants, diced

½ cup carrots, chopped

2 teaspoons cinnamon

½ teaspoon cloves

1 28-oz can of tomatoes

2 cups chicken broth

1 cup farro

½ cup sultana raisins

1 teaspoon hot sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

Salt and pepper

Sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat. Add the eggplant, carrots, cinnamon and cloves, stirring occasionally until the veggies begin to soften. Add the tomatoes, broth, sultanas and farro, bringing to a boil before decreasing heat and simmering until the farro is cooked and the carrots are tender (depending on how thick you would like the stew to be you may need to add additional chicken broth or water). Season to your liking with hot sauce, sugar, salt and pepper, and enjoy warm (or cold the following day).

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