How Much Do I Need?

By now you are doing one of two things—adventurously rolling with a new way of life or clutching on to any shred of normalcy. No matter which you have chosen there’s a solid constant from which none of us can self-isolate and that is food. We all must eat. Furthermore, we must all procure food.

I get the urban and suburban lifestyles where ready-to-eat food is abundantly available. Nothing overwhelms my senses than to walk down Connecticut or through Adams Morgan and think to myself I could eat out for every single meal and never eat the same thing twice. Even in the towns bordering my rural landscape every shopping center is peppered with fast casual chains who now serves diners through a take-out window, often only a single meal. Seriously, who stocks up on burgers and fries for the week?

But now you are my territory which means preparing most of your meals at home. Where I live if I wanted to eat out my choices would amount to two gas stations, a pizza shop or the Egg Roll Queen—all still several miles away. Over the years, my house guests are shocked when they realize how much I cook. “You shouldn’t have…” is met with a stare over the top of my glasses and raised eyebrows letting them know I have not gone out of my way for them, but merely included them in part of daily routine.

Many market customers are finding difficult to gauge exactly how much food they need for a week, especially those whose household occupants have increased with grown children and elderly parents now part of the equation. It’s the number one question I’m fielding from frustrated folks whose refrigerators are turning bare before the end of the week—how to figure out how much food to buy and how to cook at home for a week (or two).

To answer this question and get more great ideas to share with Dishing the Dirt readers I went to everyone’s favorite market chef, Jonathan Bardzik.

When it comes to meal planning, Johnathan has two fantastic suggestions. First, prioritize work you can do that will last for several meals. For example, make enough vinaigrette that can be used for multiple dishes. “What goes on a salad one meal could similarly dress steamed green beans for another,” he advised.

Secondly, anything can go in a tortilla. “There’s not much that you can’t put in a tortilla, or even on a salad or a grain bowl.” This is where leftover shine. “An ounce or two of leftover meat or roasted vegetable are perfect for this kind of meal.” Another big favorite of Jonathan’s is fried rice. “It doesn’t have to be rice. It can be any type of grain, for example, quinoa.” Just toss it all in a skillet and in a few minutes you’ve got a great meal.

I’m a big fan of cooking larger amounts basic ingredients and then using them in a variety of ways throughout the week.

But back to that pesky question of how much food to add to your weekly shopping list.

For grains, including pastas, Jonathan suggested a ball-park figure of ¼ cup per person. “Remember that grains double in volume when cooked,” Jonathan pointed out. Grains and pastas are perfect for cooking ahead of time and in volume to be used throughout the week for multiple meals.

Similarly raw vegetables can also be estimated at ¼ pound per person as a side or a ½ pound if used as a meal. For salads, a half-pound of greens will feed four, but if your cooking your greens like kale, collards, mustards and such, double the amount to a pound. While many vendors have gone to bagging raw vegetables to keep them from being handled, another good estimate is a handful per serving.

For meat eaters, four to six ounces a meal is a good estimate when purchasing cuts like steaks and roasts. Sausages and burgers work great because each is an individual serving.

Keep in mind, all of these suggestions are estimates and that you’re bound to end up with leftovers at some point, intended or not.

Want to make your food supply stretch even further? Don’t waste anything. Chef Jose Andres wasn’t joking when he talked about using all the trimmings and what we’d normal toss in the compost bucket in his latest book, Vegetables Unleashed. The same goes for any bones leftover from meat cuts. Just add water and simmer for several hours for a rich and nutritious stock that can be used for soups. I’ve got a great stash of mushroom stems in my freezer waiting to be turned into a rich stock for a mushroom bisque.

One of the biggest complaints I hear from customers when it comes to purchasing enough food to last one or two weeks is they don’t have enough room in their refrigerators or freezers. Bunk! I’ve been enough of your homes and peeked in your appliances. To start, get rid of anything in your freezer that isn’t perishable. That includes things like coffee, spices, the plastic icicle that goes in a bottle of wine to chill it down. Next, take out all the stuff you planned to eat, but never did, things like those freezer-burned lamb riblets that have been languishing away for years, but you can’t brink yourself to throw them out. Put them in the stock pot. Now there is plenty of room for a week or two of food. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of room left for a pint or two of Rock Hill Orchard ice cream.

Many folks have found themselves unable to obtain their normal food items over the last few weeks and in the coming months may be faced with having limited choices. Several vendors have shared with me trepidations about going to a boxed method of selling items to provide both a safe and efficient way of providing food to their customers. Others {including myself} are trying to figure out the best ways to safely conduct business in the age of COVID-19. You may not want those radishes or know how to cook a round roast, but it’s time to roll with it if we’re going to get through the coming months of uncertainty.

The market directors have gone to great lengths to keep our markets open, the vendors are re-tooling their sales models to stay in business and food professionals, like Jonathan are offering tips, tricks, stories and ideas through video and live social media events so that we can cook and eat at home, thus reducing the risk to ourselves and others. Thanks for helping to be part of the solution.

The New Reality

Last week while conducting my normal errands I witnessed grocery stores with empty shelves, panicked people filling their carts to the brim far more than the normal bread-milk-toilet paper run that always happens prior to an impending storm.

“Do you think anyone will show up for the market?” I had been asked earlier in the week by other vendors. Packing on Saturday I had an ominous feeling after seeing the rush to shop only the day before. I packed double and sent out messages to my regulars asking them to please pre-order their eggs if they wanted any. Their orders came back double, triple and quadruple of what they normally purchased. Most were sold before I ever rolled out of the driveway.

Welcome to our new reality.

Vendors dream of having sales days such as what happened last week, only not under such circumstances. Additionally, many of us had to come up with sanitation measures that met or exceeded the CDC’s guidelines. Vendors wore gloves, provided hand sanitizer to customers, pre-bagged food, sanitized their hands between each transaction and created visual reminders for keeping spaces between individuals.

Given the extensive closings of all schools, many patrons were no longer empty nesters picking up a package or two for themselves, but now tasked with feeding their children who home. Others took in their elderly parents. Households and their need for food expanded. They weren’t only stocking up; they literally had more mouths to feed.

One of my customers who emigrated from the Eastern Block casually said that they had encountered empty stores and stood in long lines for food. “We’ll survive,” I was assured.

This morning I was reading a collaborative report from WHO Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Modelling, MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, Abdul Latif Jameel Institute for Disease and Emergency Analytics, and the Imperial College London which is cautioning countries to prepare to live like this for as long as 18 months which is the estimated time to formulate, produce and disseminate a vaccine. Eighteen months will take us through two regular market seasons and a winter market. Think about that.

But farmers are resilient, if anything. We go on producing food year after year in the face of adversity, be it pests, weather or pestilence. We’ve had crops destroyed by too much and not enough rain, hail and heat. Furthermore, sustainable agriculture systems be they organic, regenerative, grass-based, etc., have flourished over the last twenty years because of an understanding of how precarious monocultures are when it comes to disaster. If anything, we’ve been expecting a pandemic. Don’t believe me? Talk to anyone who raises pork. The United States has gone to great lengths over the last year to prevent African Swine Fever, a highly infectious and deadly disease to pigs, from reaching our country. So far, it has wiped out over three quarters of pigs in all of Asia (not just China).

Similarly, market vendors have been beating the LOCAL drum for years; now is the time to really start dancing to that tune. I’m certainly not waiting on the government to come to the rescue. That job falls squarely on the shoulders of our local community members.

The Bethesda Central Farm Market is able to continue in our current location because our founder and director Mitch Berliner has been respected member of the Bethesda community for over fifty years who went all out to ensure the market continued. Plenty of other community leaders such as Manna Food Center and José Andrés (World Kitchen) have already mobilized to make certain everyone in our community has food during this crisis.

Make no mistake, the industrial food chain is going to grind to a halt. As the growing season is just getting started throughout the nation, seasonal laborers are now prevented from entering the country. Farms dependent on massive immigrant labor forces will struggle to produce the fruits and vegetables many have come to take for granted.

This is one of the many reasons that your market vendors are rapidly moving to a pre-order system. We want to be certain that the customers who have supported us throughout the years will be able to procure their staples from us. But more importantly, we are also moving in this direction to facilitate the Center for Disease Control guidelines of limiting close contact with others.

In the coming weeks (as long as the markets are allowed to operate), there are going to be lots of changes. We are in uncharted territory so please read through all information provided by your vendors and the market as it arrives. I know last week we told many of my customers that the location was changing to Executive Blvd., but then Mitch pulled a rabbit out of his hat which allowed us to remain at our current location at the school. Although there was no NOVA market last week, we’ve found a temporary location so that market will resume this week in the parking lot of the Church of the Holy Comforter (543 Beulah Rd. NE, Vienna, VA). Central Farm Markets will do everything in their power to maintain up-to-date information through the E-blast emails. Sign up here if you haven’t already done so. Like everything else changes are happening on a daily basis. Keep in touch, not just with the market, but with your family, friends and neighbors.

While uncertainty is evident, that does not mean we need to panic or despair. Think of this as a time to accomplish all those miserable tasks you’ve been putting off. I guess that means I’ll finally clean out and organize all my closets and cupboards. Even in the midst of a pandemic, there’s always something needing to be done on the farm.

And don’t forget, together we’ll get through this.

Turnip the Beet

Are we talking about veggies or music? Both!

Now that the weather is warming up music returns to the markets. I’ve missed the tunes drifting throughout the tents on Sunday, but even I recognize how difficult it is to strum guitars, banjos, basses and mandolins when you can’t feel your fingers. A little bluegrass and a lot of vegetables makes for a great market.

Old time music aside, we are in the last gasp of winter which means lots of great root vegetables and early spring greens. Last week an exasperated spouse who had been sent to the market to shop asked me which stand had tomatoes. After a lengthy lecture on seasonality he admitted he’ll just go to the grocery store rather than admit defeat. I suggested he try turnips or beets.

“No, I want something we can eat raw in a salad,” he countered.

It was all I could do not to refute his excuse, but my face must have said it all because he dashed away before I could go on.

So for this week’s Dishing the Dirt we’re going to discuss why greens and root vegetables abound in late winter. Yes, technically it is still winter. Earlier this week when temperatures crept up into the high 60’s causing magnolia buds to swell and daffodils to burst open in an explosion of yellow (I even caught some cherry trees in DC flowering!), we were given a brief taste of the coming weeks. However, this morning when I left for errands there was enough ice on my windshield to warrant scraping in order to drive. Winter is still here.

Tomatoes, nor any other heat-loving plants such as squashes, peppers, eggplants and most fruits would stand for this type of weather. Their expansive leaves would wilt in deference to the frost and eventually die. Nothing would ripen.

But last year starting in late summer, our farmers planted cold-hardy vegetables to harvest throughout the winter and early spring. There are many plants which are not killed by cold temperatures, including my favorite—kalettes. Sure, they grow much slower than warm-weather plants, but they’re still producing. The hardiest of vegetables can survive heavy frost with air temperatures below 28 degrees. This includes spinach, onions, leeks, rutabaga, rhubarb, kohlrabi, kale, cabbage, radishes, mustards, broccoli and turnips. Others such as carrots, parsnips, chards, cauliflower and cabbage will survive in the 28-32-degree range.  They can all withstand snow as the fluffy white stuff that has be AWOL this winter acts as insulation from cold air.

More damaging to winter vegetables than cold is wetness. To protect many of these crops from too much rain, farmers use hoop houses and low tunnels {knee-high greenhouses}.

But back to the salad conundrum of my customer. I never got to tell him that beets and turnips can be eaten raw, actually, you can eat the whole darn plant! A single cup of turnip greens delivers the highest calcium content per gram than any vegetable or fruit and is easily substituted in any recipe that calls for a heavier braising green such as spinach, kale, chard or mustard. The same goes for beet greens.

Too often I’ve received a sneer of disdain when suggesting turnips and beets as most folks think of plain boiled vegetables when they are mentioned. I think of delightful dishes like roasted root vegetables and borscht.

Last week Twin Springs had a huge box of big ol’ parsnips, another one of those odd veggies devoid of pigment but full of flavor. Think of it as a starchier carrot although it’s in the parsley family. Bon Appetit offers 19 different ways to prepare parsnips, including raw! Those recipes should more than carry you through spring until winter vegetable season is over and warm weather produce arrives.

And for those of you who prefer tomatoes on your salads, fear not. The last few weeks I’ve seen hot house cucumbers beginning to arrive at the market which means the tomatoes are not far behind.

Common Sense

My pantry

I try to keep up on current events in order to have interesting and engaging conversations with my customers and fellow vendors on Sunday. The majority of my time during the week is spent with livestock. Discussions are somewhat one-sided as they could care less about what’s going on past the perimeters of their pastures.

As time goes on, I’ve gotten to know what topic of discourse to expect from my weekly encounters. There are the geeks who make me grateful my cubicle is now a tent at the farmers market but keep me up to date on the industry as a whole. I would much rather be physically assaulted by an ill-tempered sheep than walk into a job where there are three thousand servers and no written documentation of the naming convention for the network. There are the jetsetters always regaling me with their latest global adventure, the political activists carrying the torch for the next set of elected officials and my fellow farmers with who I can truly commiserate with over issues that would leave most city folk questioning our sanity. And of course, there are the foodies.

But last week there was one issue that’s been on everyone’s mind, ousting politics, recipe ideas and banter about the latest opera season at the Kennedy Center—the Corona Virus. Yes, you can’t get away from it, even here at Dishing the Dirt.

For five solid hours it was the topic du jour among vendors and customers alike. It ran the spectrum from treading lightly by asking, “So, what do you think?” to customers doubling and tripling their normal order with the justification of better safe than sorry. “If nothing much happens at least I’ll have a good supply in the freezer,” said one customer, a former Peace Corp volunteer.

As someone with freezer storage larger than a DC studio apartment, the concept of having to stock up doesn’t compute for me. When the summer bounty is shared among fellow vendors at the end of the day, Mondays always include some type of preservation, be it canning or freezing. Currently I am enjoying blueberries, strawberries and black berries with my breakfast, both canned and frozen stashes. There are jars of tomato puree, peaches, cherries, dehydrated mushrooms and peppers, pickled cucumbers, jalapenos, beets, carrots, okra and dilly beans, and my personal favorite—sauerkraut. Advice to stock up for me is a non sequitur.

The longer I farm livestock, though, the less I see in differences between humans and other species. There are certain truths that in our society many have the luxury of choosing to ignore until the inevitable occurs, but for me, it’s a full-frontal assault in reality on a daily basis. The what-if scenarios are always several steps ahead in planning and action.

For example, isolation and quarantine are routine on the farm. When a new stud muffin arrives to service the ladies he isn’t immediately turned out in the general population, but instead given his own private digs away from everyone for a few weeks while being monitored for contagious diseases. One infected animal is much easier to deal with than hundreds. Raise livestock long enough and there will be an outbreak of some sort of scourge specific to the species you’ll have to deal with. My two biggest nightmares that have led to this vigilance are sore mouth (virus) and foot rot (bacteria).

Most viral infections in livestock run their course with little remedy other than supportive care such as lots of fluids with electrolytes, highly palatable, nutritious foods and a well-bedded pen away from the bustle of everyone else. Sound familiar?

Yet at other times, the outcome isn’t as gentle. One year, a bout of highly contagious interstitial pneumonia decimated an entire season of kid goats that were all housed together. I was inconsolable until a fellow farmer shared that a hailstorm in late June the year before had destroyed his entire crop of cherries. “You cry about it for a little and then get over it. That’s farming,” he said; advice I have taken to heart.

Did you know that in agriculture there are some diseases that if found, the entire herd or flock will be seized by the USDA and destroyed?

For anyone who tried to persuade me as to the evils and inconveniences of potential isolation and quarantine, sorry, but as a farmer, my opinion on that subject has evolved out of experience. I have no crystal ball to foretell the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but the prevention of pestilence is always on my radar.

It’s not my place to determine if some reactions to this potential pandemic are prudent or underestimated. However, there are basic measures we can all take at the farmers market to ward off the spread of all seasonal viruses.

  1. If you are sick—fever, chills, coughing, sneezing, digestive upset, etc.—STAY HOME. If you absolutely must have something, ask a family member or neighbor to shop for you. Don’t be afraid to contact the vendor and pre-order something to be picked up for you.
  2. Since not everyone will follow #1, WASH YOUR PRODUCE {which you should be doing anyway} How many times do we idly eat fruit or vegetables straight from the stand because they look so delicious?
  3. WASH YOUR HANDS Wash them before going to the market and afterwards. Use hand sanitizer.
  4. Use proper sampling etiquette if a vendor offers samples. Parents, please handle samples for your children instead of letting little hands grab for themselves.
  5. If you do need to cough or sneeze, please move away from open displays of food items, and sneeze into your elbow or cover your mouth with a tissue (which must be promptly thrown away). While you may know it’s just allergies, everyone around you is thinking something different.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO), in the event of a Corona virus outbreak, we should be prepared to isolate ourselves for a few weeks. Being prepared is no different than for those who live in areas of the country prone to natural disasters.  Be thankful you’re not a new animal on the farm or I’d have you sequestered for at least a month.

Coffee: It’s Farmed & Seasonal

I am a creature of habit. Every other week I headed over to Zeke’s to pick up a pound of my favorite coffee, an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe from the Banko Cooperative. About this time last year I found myself in the same predicament—they were out of those particular beans. The harvest was taking place which meant that it would be at least another month until this season’s batch would arrive in port.

Like the market’s teas and olive oils I’ve written about, coffee is also something that is farmed—yes, seasonally—yet we often fail to recognize this as we rarely, if ever, get a chance to see it growing or to meet the producers. While procuring a pound of my favorite coffee, I was handed three bags instead of one. “This is the very last of the Banko. There won’t be anymore,” said Brian Bovard, our market barista. I’ve trusted his judgement on my daily dose of caffeine for several years. He knows my preference for naturally processed darker roasts with citrus notes and volcanic soil overtones, picking me the perfect beans more often than not.

Brian

Wanting to know more about where my Banko beans went and to delve more into coffee, I spoke with Brian for this week’s installment of Dishing the Dirt.

I grew up in a non-coffee-drinking household and didn’t come to the brown brew until a weekend with my in-law grandparents who sucked down pots of Maxwell House while playing dominos. It was as if someone had flipped a switch turning me into a bona fide caffeine fiend. My addiction thoroughly set in after a trip to Hawai’i with their famed Kona coffee. I lugged home several pounds of beans, hoping they would last until my next trip.

When Starbuck’s hit the big time, I had a standing order that arrived monthly via UPS. By now I was grinding my own pea berries having graduated from the Mr. Coffee drip machine to a Farberware perc pot. This was my standard for many years until I experienced a prolonged power outage and became a fan of French press. There was a stint of an espresso addiction during my time in the technology industry as each employer had a room devoted to stainless-steel gadgets and assortments of garnishes from cinnamon to soya milk.

But in all those years not once did I really consider that my morning ritual was grown by another farmer.

So where did my Banko go? This was the first topic of conversation. “The cooperative went broke or dissolved,” he told me and immediately I got it. Farmers are farmers, independent and fraught with risk. As much of the coffee cultivation in Ethiopia is done on a very small scale, farmers form cooperatives in order to get product to markets they may not be able to reach on their own.

Cooperatives, be they a loose association or a formal one, are like any business—they either succeed or cease to exist. The reasons why are infinite. However, Brian steered me to a similar variety, Shakiso, out of the thirty plus assortment of beans and roasts that Zeke’s offers. How was it similar? Easy, the naturally processed beans had come from a coffee farmer who is a former member of the Banko cooperative.

I knew little about coffee production, so Brian filled in the gaps to my questions.

What did he mean by naturally processed? Turns out that the characteristics and flavor profile of the final product is dependent not only where it is grown, but by how the beans are processed when raw and how the raw beans are then roasted—much like tea. Beans can also be washed and wet held which both influence the characteristics of the final product.

Also likely to determine the flavors of coffee beans are at what altitude the beans are grown. There are hundreds of species of coffee beans, but the two most common are Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora (Robusta), Arabica being the predominantly farmed species due to it’s sweet, floral favors as opposed to the burnt tire bitterness of Robusta beans which is tolerated for the hefty jolt of caffeine Robusta contains.

The coffee belt runs across the center of the world catching North and South America, Africa, Asia and even parts of Australia. People in Ethiopia began cultivating coffee for drinking as early as the 11th century. Immigrants and refugees have been carrying cultivars, production and roasting knowledge across the globe for centuries.

However, like all aspects of agriculture, not only do similar products differ depending upon where and how they are grown, they are also likely to differ from year to year. Think about it. How many times have you imbibed in a delicious bottle of wine of a certain vintage only to find previous or following vintages fitting only for coq-au-vin?

I thought about why this same dynamic in agricultural raw goods is not equally viewed until it dawned on me that Zeke’s weeds out the unfavorable flavors not only through the purchase of raw goods, but by the roasting process.

“When we get in beans we roast them in various styles then cup {taste} them to see what flavors we can coax out of the bean,” explained Brian.

As much as I get the questions about my own production practices, I had to ask about all the various certifications and designations one encounters with coffee. Fair Trade simply means that the farmers and their workers were paid a living wage to produce the raw products. This is the big one I look for when purchasing products from parts of the world where poverty, slave and child labor are rampant.

Another lesser-known, but important designations are Shade Grown and Bird Friendly, both designed to promote diversified environments that support biodiversity—not large-scale monocrops dependent on chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides.

The most noted designation continues to be Certified Organic, which both Zeke’s DC and Baltimore brick & mortar locations now carry.

The Ethiopian coffee harvest season is currently underway. In a few months I’m looking forward to what new naturally processed, dark roasted Yirgacheffe variety Zeke’s will offer for the coming year and wonder about the farmers who grew it.

A Different Calendar

There are over a dozen major calendars used throughout the globe—Hebrew, Chinese, Ethiopian, Islamic, Persian, and of course, the Gregorian which is what the majority of us use for legal and business purposes. However, there is another type of calendar of sorts. One that follows no movements of the sun and moon, no auspicious numbers, no designation of standards, yet thousands have faithfully followed its dates and seasons for millennia. I’m talking about the calendar of nature to which those of us in agrarian endeavors often follow.

How would you feel if your calendar were a moving target with some seasons longer than others, that seem to go backwards at time, skip around at others, or worse yet, fail to appear at all?

Welcome to farming.

This was on my mind after I walked down to the barn this week and saw the first heron of the year on the pond. Herons don’t randomly show up. For it to land on the pond, the pond itself must have what the heron wants: food. That means that turtles, snakes, fish and other small critters are starting to poke their heads out from winter. Along with the herons the Bald Eagles arrive because—you guessed it—Bald Eagles eat herons. I don’t even have to see the great birds of prey because the livestock guardian dogs will tell me they have arrived with their specific intruder alert barking as they race across the pasture following the silhouette in the sky.

On social media, Spiral Path Farm began counting down the weeks until their first harvests begin with an image of stubby red rhubarb buds peeking through the ground. I went outside to check on mine and yes, there they were, too. But nature’s calendar is still a bit wonky as I have not spied any groundhog activity despite their official day now over three weeks passed.

The birds, though, are my favorite bellwethers of changing seasons. Occurring now is the telltale sound of woodpeckers excavating nest cavities in which they will lay their eggs. As I walked under the big maple tree by the barn the ground was littered with wood chips and dust. Looking up, an assortment of holes started and abandoned for different spots on a dead spur were evident, a few possibly deep enough to house a clutch of eggs.

The Great Horned Owls have been quite active. They make an assortment of vocalizations that few would immediately recognize as an owl. The Barn Owls who nest in the abandoned silo have yet to be seen or heard. They are extremely territorial and a few times each year I get buzzed by them on my walk back to the house from the barn at dusk. The first time it happened I screamed like a little girl. While the rush of air off the wings so close and unexpected is startling, I now understand they are simply asking for some privacy.

Like clockwork, the fledgling owlets will take their first flight out the top hatch on the full moon in late July/early August swooping from the silo across the hay field to the woodlot. Back and forth they will fly with their parents learning to hunt mice, voles and other small critters that live in the grass.

Several years ago after the young had fledged, I went into the silo to see their nest. A perfect owl feather had been left behind. I snatched it up and wore it in my hat the following Sunday to market. But the reaction to my adornment wasn’t what I expected.

“Hand over the feather and I won’t make a big deal of it,” said one of my regulars.

“No way, this came from the owls in the old silo. It’s mine,” I joked back. But the gentleman wasn’t joking. He pulled out his Federal Wildlife Marshall’s badge and informed me that I was in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. When he told me what the fine could be for my offence I quickly relinquished the feather.  He then educated me on which feathers from wild birds I’d be allowed to wear in my hat. Fortunately, wild turkeys were safe. They, too, have a timetable on the farm, but more of a daily routine.

Tom (male) turkeys in the wild have harems and territories. I have counted as many as seven groups some years. One male will begin gobbling at dawn and they will go down the line and back several times. This ritual will be repeated in the evening, too. Without looking at my iPhone, a clock or a watch, I can hear when it is time to wake up in the morning or finish up my daylight projects.

But my favorite migrants are the hummingbirds. Last summer was a banner year for the tiny iridescent precision flying nectar drinkers with me filling the two feeders every other day to meet their demands. I’ve learned what flowers they like best and try to surround my house with them. Like the wild turkeys, the hummers are fiercely territorial with epic open-air battles. One flew into my house and refused to leave despite all the windows and doors being open. I learned that hummingbirds, like the chickens roost when it gets dark making it easy to snatch them off their perches.

There will be Blue Birds and Baltimore Orioles, Red-winged Blackbirds, crows and buzzards. When the hay gets mowed the Barn Swallows with swarm scooping up in mid-air all the flying insects that rise from the sheared grasses. I was heartbroken when contractors who rewired the electricity in the barn had to remove all the mud thatched nests the swallows had built on the beams. Would they return? Indeed, they did rebuilding their nests in exactly the same spots.

While I am forced to follow standardized measures of hours, days, weeks, months and years, it is nature whom I prefer to alert me to the passage of time.

The One & Only American Shochu

You never know what you are going to encounter at the farmers market. As vendors, management and even the legislature fret about over-saturation in local markets, the one thing that makes a market stand apart from the pack is having unique and innovative products. This week I learned how fortunate Central Farmers Market is to have The American Shochu Company as one of our vendors.

Despite Maryland’s long history of distilled libations, historical references of the Japanese white liquor, shochu dates back at least five hundred years. While most Americans are familiar with sake, for Japanese, shochu is the spirit of choice. So how has no one until recently—about four years ago—produced an American shochu?

I’m familiar with the rotation of Maryland distilleries who show up at Central Farm Markets, but last year I noticed that Taka Amano was showing up weekly with his product, the very first American shochu. Customers were paying attention, too, as I saw many carrying bottles exclaiming UMAI!

“Hey, is that stuff good?” I asked one of my regulars.

“Are you kidding? This is my third bottle. I love this stuff,” came the response and off I went to procure my own taste. Heading into winter, it was a chilly morning. After introducing himself, Taka meticulously poured a taste of warm liquid from a thermos for me.

“It can also be mixed for cocktails,” he said as I sipped my sample. Sold. The bottle went into the collection to be handed out to friends and family during the holiday season. The recipient’s reaction said it all.

Anyone who has ever traveled to Japan knows about shochu as it has become the most popular alcoholic beverage there, surpassing sake for the last 15 years when marketers began promoting it for use in cocktails. Being a neutral spirit like vodka, shochu is a versatile white whiskey made from sweet potatoes, rice or barley. UMAI! Is made using Certified Organic barley grown in the U.S.

“There is nothing cooler than shochu, so someone had to introduce Americans to it,” said Taka who had split his time between Japan and the United States with a small business that bridged American and Japanese industries.

That experience served as foundation when four years ago when Taka began producing premium shochu at his distillery in Frederick, Maryland. Unlike Japanese distillers who are loathe to waste product, The American Shochu Company wanted to produce a smooth, premium product leading them to cut the heads and tails which are the beginning and end of the distilling process. Compounds found in the heads and tails are responsible for those skull-crushing hangovers leaving UMAI! to get a reputation for being hangover-free. “My shochu is the cleanest in the world,” Taka expressed with great pride.

It is also the top selling brand in Montgomery County liquor stores, a fete that Taka credits to his products’ exposure to the public at the farmers market. “Nowhere else could I get my product in front of such a large group of people as well as collect immediate feedback.”

Recently, Taka returned from a trip to Japan—his first in three years—to share his American shochu with his friends and former colleagues. And the results? Same as the name of his flagship product—UMAI! {translation: yummy}

Learn more about American shochu at their website or stop by Central Farm Markets for a taste and to visit with Taka.

Something We Can Agree Upon

In this time of political incivility and divisive civics I’m often caught expressing my want of an alien invasion so we can all just be humans. But as a farmer, even I cannot escape innate behaviors for specific groups to separate and at times, clash.

Recently I spoke at a conference about the profitability of small ruminants, explaining that sheep and goats can be kept together, but they’ll separate into groups of their own species barely tolerating each other. Humans don’t have a corner on the market when it comes to partisan politics.

I’ve had customers decry the death of democracy and roar over the fallacy of impeachment, but most are becoming ambivalent to the constant sniping on either side of the isle. Like the sheep and goats who keep in separate areas of the pasture, market patrons just want to eat. In these frustrating times, I see many turning to comfort foods. The one that keeps cropping up:

Mashed Potatoes

With Thanksgiving and Christmas in our rearview mirrors and temperatures reaching the 60’s, one would think mashed potato season is over—wrong. Potatoes are winter staples due to their extended storage capabilities. There are Russets, Yukon Golds, and Peruvian Purples {my personal favorite} from which to choose. When feelings of despair start creeping in, it’s time to whip up a batch of Market Mashed Potatoes using my grandma’s old-fashioned hand masher to take out my aggressions. Forget butter and cream—go straight for the crème fraîche with a splash of hot beef stock, preferably with some melted tallow to crank up the silky texture. Any week now green garlic should be showing up at the markets, too. Garlicky mashed potatoes…mmmmmm, but for now I’ll have to make do with the green shoots from the red onions I’ve overwintered from Spiral Path Farm.

If that’s not enough to chase away the doldrums, add cheese…lots of cheese. A few tablespoons of fresh ricotta, a half a log of chèvre, a cup of grated Gruyere—it doesn’t matter as long as the gooey goodness lulls you into starch, fat and flavor coma drowning out the talking heads debating only their point of view.

Similar to our government’s two-party system, yes, potatoes come in two affiliations; don’t forget the sweet potatoes. Have you seen those two-pound honkers showing up as the market season goes on? They’re often referred to as number twos since they are so huge and appear as the premium tubers (number ones) dwindle in supply.

Sure, you can make savory mashed potatoes out of them, but in more than just name they beg to be sweet. I prefer those mashed potatoes to be mixed with maple syrup (of which the season is almost upon us), a few eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg a splash of bourbon in lieu of vanilla and baked in a pie shell, preferably one made with rendered lard.

If that’s not enough to alleviate my fears for the future, there’s only one thing that can top my mashed potatoes. No, not a ladle of gravy or a dollop of whipped cream. It’s time to pull out all the stops and go snuggle with the baby lambs.

Sharing Knowledge

This is the time of year that many regional agricultural conferences take place. A few years ago, I took off a Sunday from market to attend one in New York, but this year I went to the Future Harvest CASA (Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture) conference that took place in East Hyattsville, Maryland. This meant it was close enough for me not to skip out on Sunday.

Like many conferences, there are pre-conference workshops that are day-long or run for several hours as opposed to the 60 to 90-minute sessions offered during the main two-day event. There was also a trade show, photo contests, meals, and awards—the usual conference stuff. It’s when you walk past another farmer you went to market with years ago and haven’t seen in a while, so you make a bee line to each other for a hug and greetings. There were inspiring speakers, authors signing and selling their latest books, and old sages whom I aspire to become more like the years pass.

But something happened this year which I never experienced: market customers went to the conference.

They’re not farmers or even aspiring farmers. One is a food professional, but the others wanted to know more about the environment and how their food choices made an impact.

“Wow, I never realized how complex farming really is,” exclaimed a long-time Central Farm Market customer who caught up to me in the hallway at the conference center after attending the workshop, Life in the Underground: Healthy Soils, Healthy Plants, Healthy Planet. “How do you manage to learn all this stuff?” he asked.

Like everyone else, by reading, attending conferences, workshops, and the best teacher of all—experience.

Not everyone wants that type of hands-on knowledge when it comes to their food so here’s where organizations such as Future Harvest CASA steps in. Now in their twentieth year, the non-profit serves the Delmarva region along with West Virginia and Pennsylvania. While that might sound like a huge territory, consider that I can drive to Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia from Pennsylvania in less than an hour. Similarly, take a look at where your market vendors are located. Sound familiar?

Future Harvest CASA’s mission, To build a sustainable Chesapeake foodshed from farm and fishery to table, sums up in what we are all interested. Working not only with farmers and fishers, but also with chefs, stakeholders, local, state and federal agencies, and consumers, the nonprofit offers a variety of programs, events and trainings throughout the year geared to a variety of audiences from seasoned farmers to consumers.

In addition to many vendors being members, Central Farm Markets takes on responsibility in leadership. Deb Moser, co-owner of Central Farm Markets and Shane Hughes, owner of Liberty Delight Farm are both are members on the non-profit’s board of directors. Similarly, I often see the organization’s Executive Director, Dena Leibman shopping at the market.

I am warmed in knowing that there is support from multiple avenues for Future Harvest CASA, including from everyday eaters who may never step foot on a farm or fishing vessel. Food production has a HUGE impact on carbon emissions as well as sequestration. Much of the science is lost on the general public when it comes to global issues such as climate change leading to charged accusations on both sides of the coin. On one side, consumers demand unfettered access to inexpensive food while producers want to farm using environmental and socially responsible practices while remaining financially sustainable. Thanks to organizations like Future Harvest CASA, there is a platform {other than the farmers markets} where producers and customers can come together to figure out how to make our food system work better for the common good of humanity.

No Excuses

Thanks to the power of the Internet, Social Media, and cellular communications, farmers and customers are able in interact on a scale never before experienced in human history. What to see where and how your food is grown? Check out your favorite farm’s website. If they don’t have a website, there’s often a Facebook or Instagram account. If you really want to take the pulse of your farmer, lurk about their Twitter account. I know my personal opinions tend to slosh about in that particular digital venue.

A few years ago I began training my customers to text or email orders for items that tend to sell out quickly each week. This works especially well for those who like to sleep in on cold Sunday mornings. Having cut my professional teeth on the Internet over thirty years ago {anyone remember BBS and DOS?}, I tend to stay digitally connected through multiple technologies and applications and my customers know this.

But not all farmers or customers are tech savvy and driven. Despite this, they find workarounds. Last Sunday an hour into market I received a text from a regular who was not placing an order, but simply inquiring if Rob the salad guy was at the market this week. Had they subscribed to the markets’ weekly eBlast (you can do so HERE), they would have seen Young Harvests listed in the weekly roster of who is coming to market. Fortunately, texting technologies now identify questions and offer one-touch responses to yes or no. Yes, Rob is here this week. No, I will not go get two bags of salad mix for you.

Through assorted applications, customers keep abreast of what’s happening on the farm with cute pictures of babies and get great ideas for how to cook what they procure at the markets. However, a fairly regular communique from customers reaching out when they are AWOL from market is there is not enough variety to warrant a trip for shopping.

To everyone who has sent me that message via text, email, Messenger, IG and Twitter, this week’s Dishing the Dirt is dedicated to you.

What do you mean there’s not enough? Seriously. Even the pickiest eaters and vegans can find plenty to eat at the farmers market in the dead of winter. Our farmers are tops when it comes to getting product to market when the rest of the mid-Atlantic is frozen into submission.

As a vendor at market each week, I have access to everything our foodshed has to offer. Granted, I have to schlep to Target for toilet paper and cat food, but you won’t catch me buying bagged salad there.

Even though Young Harvest only comes to market every other week during the winter months, I can guarantee that a bag of their greens will remain edible two full weeks. This is the Voice of Experience. Even when the spinach or bok choy is looking a little sad on the second week, it’s perfectly fine for cooking. Don’t believe me? Check out meal I made with wilted greens and shriveled mushrooms. Plus, fermented foods will keep in the fridge for months. Looks delicious {it was}, doesn’t it?

This is also soup and stew weather. Nothing warms the house and adds humidity to dry indoor air like simmering a pot of homemade stock on the stove. My personal favorite this time of year is mushroom bisque of which all the ingredients are readily available at market.

Omnivores have plenty of choices to pair with their proteins. One of my favorite winter meals is a pork chop cooked with caramelized onions and apples with a splash of cider to deglaze the pan served atop a mound of mashed potatoes. Again, all the ingredients sourced at the market.

The powerhouse of winter greens, though, are brussels sprouts. On just about every trendy menu today, these once-reviled sulphurous gas-inducing minicabbages have become the go-to seasonal darling at the market along with their cousin, kalettes. A few nights ago I roasted brussels sprouts with garlic, butter, maple syrup and coarse salt and pepper. Or give them a try the way Boundary Stone serves them sautéed with honey balsamic glaze and toasted pecans. Try tossing them in boiling water to cook along with pasta or shredding them to top a toasted flat bread. The combinations and cooking methods abound.

Next are the root vegetables—carrots, potatoes, beets, turnips, kale, chard, rutabagas, celery root, onions, leeks—starches and sugars. Last week at market I counted five different varieties of potatoes alone. Tired of white potatoes, try sweet potatoes, there’s at least three different varieties.

In addition to the seasonal goods, the staples are at the market on a weekly basis—milk, meat, fish & seafood, breads, cheeses, yoghurt, pastries, pickles, coffee, pasta, sweets, oils & vinegars, mushrooms, and libations. For those who don’t want to cook much, there are also prepared foods. Many farms also offer jarred fruits and sauces made from their own produce while in season.

I get it. People get stuck in food ruts such as needing tomato on their salads, year-round asparagus and strawberries for smoothies. It’s easy to go to the grocery store, leisurely shop in relative warmth and get whatever you want regardless of season. For this I will not fault you too much, however, please do not text me with the blasphemous message there’s nothing much there to eat at the market this time of year. On that, I respond, ah-hem—manure!