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People often ask what inspired me to become a food writer and cooking instructor. I think they expect to hear heartwarming recollections of a childhood spent beside my mother at the stove, and reminiscences of glorious holiday repasts, table groaning with the bounty from our garden. They anticipate my memories of milking goats, and tangy chevre on homemade bread for an after-school snack. They imagine my Russian grandmother frying latkes for breakfast (using eggs I’d collected from our flock of Rhode Island Reds).

And, to a certain degree, there is truth in these examples. Looking back, I’m quite certain my formative experiences with food are what shaped my career. But the reality is that, while I grew up on a small ranch, the daughter of a large animal veterinarian and a former barrel-racing-champion-turned-homemaker, my own culinary education had a few…inconsistencies.

I did watch my mom cook sometimes; she still has a way with instant mashed potatoes and cracks open a mean jar of Prego. Our neighbors had a garden, and at the age of ten, I established a roadside produce stand, yet Birds-Eye was still a staple at my own dinner table. The eggs I gathered each morning (when I wasn’t being held hostage in the henhouse by our sadistic asshole of a rooster) were whisked by my mother in a microwave-proof bowl, before being nuking into rubbery oblivion. I was in college before I learned that scrambled eggs aren’t traditionally made in a microwave.

My paternal grandmother was the daughter of a Russian émigré. Grandma Miller possessed a heavy New York accent, and she was—my dad will agree—the worst cook this side of Minsk. The (real, not instant) potatoes in her latkes were an oxidized grey, the resulting pancakes flabby and greasy from improperly heated oil. Small wonder I was the pickiest eater on the planet, utterly exasperating my Depression-era parents who, let’s face it, were only trying to embrace the advent of convenience foods.

The one time my mom tried making yogurt and cheese from our goat’s milk (she was having an early 1970’s back-to-the-land moment), the results were not exactly edible. In retrospect, I don’t think she realized the milk required starter cultures. So we instead drank goat milk by the gallon, and in the process my family became huge caprine aficionados. We bred our Nubian doe, Go-Go, every year, and ended up keeping several of her doelings; the bucks we donated to Heifer Project International. For my part, I adored our goats. Even when I fed Go-Go an uninflated balloon, it was with the best of intentions (it was Easter, and I thought she’d appreciate its pretty pink color).

In sixth grade, I decided to follow in my older brother’s footsteps and raise goats for a 4-H project. I bounced out of bed each morning to milk Rose, a distant relative of the late Go-Go (who died of natural causes, not from ingesting peony-hued rubber). Despite my rural upbringing, our property was located in a peaceful canyon only a couple of miles from what is today a populous, yuppified bedroom community of Los Angeles. There were a few other families with children up the road, but I was the only one living on a ranch.

The rooms at Westlake Elementary School were packed with upper-middle-class, mostly white kids, and it turned out they didn’t share my  goaty enthusiasm. It was Jason Racinelli, a criminal in the making if ever there was one, who dubbed me “Goat Girl.” It was the first week of school, and as part of our “What I Did for Summer Vacation” oral reports, I’d waxed poetic about Rose and the wonders of lactation. If memory serves, I even passed around Dixie cups of her milk for my classmates to taste.

I was waiting for my mom to pick me up from school in our geriatric wood-paneled station wagon, when Jason appeared by my side. He looked me up and down, a sneer on his handsome face. “Hey Goat Girl,” he drawled, leaning in close and taking a long, exaggerated sniff. “You smell like a goat. Why would anyone even want a goat? Why do you even go to this school? Why don’t you go back to your stupid farm?”

Mercifully, my mom arrived at that moment, but before I could escape to the safety of the car and the slobbery kisses of our three dogs, Jason yelled, “’Bye, Goat Girl! Don’t forget to wear your overalls tomorrow!”

Just some goats at Bee Tree Farm’s happy hour.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that someone, somewhere, eventually kicked Jason Racinelli’s ass to Kingdom Come or incarcerated him. Unfortunately, before that could happen, I essentially became known as Goat Girl for the remainder of the year, and developed several nervous tics that abated only after we sold Rose and I instead concentrated on raising rabbits (fuzzy, rodent-like creatures were apparently on the list of “cool” pets to own). I don’t recall exactly when I allowed my goat obsession to resurface, but suffice it to say, I’m now a contributing editor at culture: the word on cheese and live in Austin, one of those few enlightened cities that permit backyard goats (don’t get me started on the yoga).

So, while my somewhat dichotomous culinary upbringing played a large role in my career of choice, I usually opt for a shorter, easier, wholly truthful answer. “I became a food writer because when I was eight years old and walking my brother’s goat at the county fair, a middle-aged man asked me, “What type of dog is that?It was at that moment I realized: most people don’t have a fucking clue where their food comes from.

Thanks, Mom and Dad. And yeah, you too, Jason Racinelli.

On assignment at Pure Luck Dairy, in Texas.

On assignment at Pure Luck Farm & Dairy.

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Brook and Rose LeVan raise heritage turkeys on their Colorado ranch.

Brook and Rose LeVan raise heritage turkeys on their Colorado ranch, Sustainable Settings.

Every year at this time, my family and I duke it out over the turkey. It’s not about, “Should we brine it or deep-fry?” or, “Do we baste it with cultured butter made by blind Norman nuns or massage it with a dry-rub of hand-harvested spices grown on an 8th-century Kerala plantation?”

Sorry to disappoint, but with the Miller’s, the conversation always comes down to this (the following are direct quotes I’ve received from family members this month):

“I found a pre-brined turkey at Trader Joe’s. ”

“Why would you pre-order a turkey? You’re the only one who cares about its upbringing.”

So, despite the Butterball currently residing in my parents’ refrigerator (my flying in from out-of-state makes lugging a fresh turkey from a friend’s farm logistically impossible), I’d like to share my recent Edible Aspen article on pasture-raised turkeys.

In this big, complicated country of ours- where we have so many choices with regard to our food supply–  it’s about doing the best you can. Armageddon will not occur when said Butterball lands on the dinner table- but I firmly believe that as consumers all, we have a moral obligation to educate ourselves and our children about where our food comes from. As consumers, we deserve to have access to that information, regardless of our socioeconomic status. Wholesome, responsibly-raised and -grown food shouldn’t be a luxury for anyone, but realistically, we must rely upon integrated agriculture to feed our growing domestic- and global- population.

Worrying about how my Thanksgiving turkey was raised is a First-World problem, and for that, I’m thankful. Happy Thanksgiving, America.

Photo love: Epicurious

Photo love: Epicurious

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Photo love: Fruit Maven

Photo love: Fruit Maven

“How do you retire from doing what you love the most?”

Glenn Austin, a 72-year-old seventh-generation peach farmer, recently posed this rhetorical question as we wrapped up our interview for an Edible Aspen feature. He and his wife of 55 years had just taken their first non-work-related vacation, and while they enjoyed the trip, they were happy to return to their 26 acres of high-altitude paradise on Colorado’s Western Slope.

Peach farming reminded me of the six years I spent slinging stonefruit at Bay Area farmers’ markets– a formative and formidable time when I was trying to find my footing as a cooking teacher and food writer. In 2000, I was four years out of culinary school and living in Berkeley- epicenter of the nation’s sustainable food movement. I was working multiple jobs to get by, while simultaneously launching a home-based cooking school and journalism career. Back then, my energy was boundless, and my back a hell of a lot stronger.

What I most wanted at that time was a job at the farmers market, both for the education and industry contacts. It was difficult to infiltrate the ranks of the vendor community, because the most-coveted farms had little employee turnover. I’d gotten to know some of these folks in between teaching, waiting tables, and working in kitchens, and I yearned to become part of the tight-knit market clan.

Home is where the farm is. Photo love: Jason Dewey Photography

Happy place. Photo love: Jason Dewey Photography

Deliverance came one afternoon when I was getting my weekly dog fix from the puppy at Frog Hollow Farm’s stand. Owner “Farmer Al” Courchesne’s peaches were the stuff of legend in the Bay Area; his luscious stonefruit appeared on the menus of the region’s most influential restaurants of the day, including Chez Panisse, Oliveto, and Zuni Cafe. A peach, Al was fond of saying, “is like sex in a fuzzy skin.”

I’d gotten to know Al’s wife, Becky, as an occasional customer (their stuff ain’t cheap). Perhaps she was just sick of me molesting her dog but rarely purchasing fruit, or maybe she took pity on me. Whatever the case, Becky hired me and thus began my glorious career as a part-time peach and pastry pusher. For over half a decade, I worked three markets a week in Berkeley and San Francisco, year-round.

I gleefully did manual labor, unloading and loading the farm truck, setting up tables and pop-up tents, hefting up to 50 pounds of fruit at a time, and tying down loads. My hands were callused, my nails perpetually dirty, my body bruised, my skin a cancer-cultivating hue. Al was a mercurial taskmaster. But I loved the job. I was also totally ripped, my refrigerator overflowed with peerless product (bartering being the raison d’etre for working low-paying market jobs) and I had a wonderfully diverse group of friends and colleagues who shared my passion for food and family farms.

Death-gripping a pretzel, age two.

Death-gripping a pretzel, age two.

By 2003, I’d transitioned to food and travel writing (Becky, more than anyone, is responsible for encouraging me to do so), and contributed to several Lonely Planet guidebooks. The following is an abridged excerpt from World Food California, for which I wrote an essay on the Berkeley Farmers Market:

If…waiting tables is a challenge in Berkeley, then try selling food products at its farmers’ markets…due to any number of food sensitivities, aversions, allergies, purported allergies, or political statements. When Becky, a gifted pastry chef, started making organic jam and pastries from the farm’s fruit, she was fulfilling a longtime dream of turning the raw ingredients growing right outside her kitchen into edible offerings that reflected the soul of the farm.

I severely underestimated the high-maintenance requirements of Berkeley’s food militia, but despite the occasional verbal assaults from pissed-off vegans and early-adopting gluten-phobes, most of our customers were pretty cool. The people-watching never failed to disappoint. Entertainment came in the form of observing Berkeley’s resident weirdos, busting thieving kids and derelicts (my nickname was “The Enforcer”), and trying to prevent customers from double-dipping when tasting our jams.

The defendants at the SF Ferry Building farm shop. Photo love: Edible Excursions

Becky’s tarts on display. Photo love: Edible Excursions

“Freeloaders and freaks, homeless and housewives, children and chefs…the market is a truly special place to work. To be surrounded by people so connected to the land and so committed to preserving California’s precious resources, growers of exquisite produce, food artisans of a quality equal to any found in Europe; these are the reasons I stay...There’s a camaraderie that exists amongst the market vendors. We’re a family. We support one another. I’ll trade you some first-of-the-season Burlat cherries for some of your haricot verts.

The market offers a respite from the urban racket. It’s an oasis of green, earthly things, a refuge from the ever-growing parade of strip malls and tract homes that threaten to engulf our agricultural land. I can think of no other community so deeply dedicated to supporting sustainable agriculture, or of so many chefs and consumers enamored of cooking and eating the fresh, the seasonal, the local.”

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Some Colorado Easter Egg radishes.

As much as I loved the market, I began a slow but inevitable burn-out. I called my conundrum the “velvet handcuffs” because I didn’t know how to a leave a secure job (Becky and Al were nothing if not supportive of my writing career, allowing me to take off as much time as needed for assignments) with decent pay (Al believed in rewarding hard work). I spent nearly two years agonizing, until the combination of a bad breakup and a collapsing housing market made the decision for me. It was time to move on.

Eventually, I ended up back in Colorado, always my longterm goal. I love my rural life in the Rocky Mountains, in a valley nationally renown for its sustainable agriculture. But I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss being part of a market community, and the happy exhaustion that comes at the end of a long, physically demanding work day. I’ll never get used to the short growing season, lack of indigenous citrus, and crappy tomatoes. My fridge is far more anemic, since my freelance budget doesn’t permit splurges on walnut oil, fresh chestnut flour pasta, duck fat, or dry-farmed heirloom produce- bartered items I once took for granted.

Yet, moving here has finally enabled me to earn a living as a writer. True, writing softens you in ways the physical demands of restaurant and farm work don’t- muscle tone and posture are the first to go, followed by the ability to think quickly on your feet and interact with other Homo sapiens. But writing also hardens you. To rejection, setbacks, and living paycheck-to-paycheck. Writing isn’t an occupation for those with weak constitutions, a shitty work ethic, or lack of passion. But then, neither is being a chef. Or a farmer.

“How do you retire from doing what you love the most?”

I don’t know. I hope I’m never able to tell you.

Glenn and Tony Austin. Photo love: Austin Family Farm

Glenn and Tony Austin. Photo love: Austin Family Farm

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A. So a truck could run it over, enabling a guy with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth to scoop it up 30 seconds later and cook it for breakfast.

True story.

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Harvesting Tupelo Honey in Florida Panhandle

Harvesting Tupelo honey in the Florida Panhandle

I’m a purist when it comes to most foods. I was the kind of pain-in-the-ass kid who refused to eat items that were touching on the plate (actually, I refused to eat pretty much everything that wasn’t Kraft mac & cheese or mashed potatoes; my mom is wont to sigh, “You liked white food.”). While times have changed and I’m now apt to do things like ignore the “30-second rule” or snack on deep-fried crickets, I still retain my puritan philosophy when it comes to pairing ingredients.

I like to enjoy certain foods in their pure state. If, for example, I’m tasting cheese, I skip the cracker. I dislike cheese plates that feature jam or other condiments glopped atop the offerings. This isn’t to say I don’t find aforementioned jam alluring with cheese- I just prefer to serve the two separately, and then pair them at my discretion. This is my own anal-retentiveness at work, and certainly, there’s no wrong way to go about pairing cheese.

With that said, honey is absolutely bombtastic with cheese, whether you enjoy them solo, or drizzle a bit of liquid gold or smear a chunk of comb atop your dairy. In culture magazine’s first-ever dedicated Pairing Issue, I show you how to pair cheese and honey to maximum effect. Think fresh chevre or sheep’s ricotta with orange blossom honey, or specific combos like River’s Edge Chevre’s Up in Smoke with Turkey Hill’s Bourbon Barrel-Aged Honey, or Redwood Hill Farm’s California Crottin with Marshall’s Farm’s Pumpkin Blossom Honey. It’s the little things in life that make it sweet.

 

 

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Photo love: redbubble.com

I confess I’m self-promoting out an updated article that originally ran on Gadling in 2011, but hey, folks, HuffPo doesn’t pay.

Of greater importance: there’s a slow but steady backlash against food elitism. Pass it on.

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A major haul in Colorado’s Lizard Head Wilderness. Those are not my hands…I may have eczema, but not man-hands.

Ever since I wrote a report on mushrooms in the fourth grade, I’ve been obsessed with fungi in all its glorious permutations. I spent many childhood hours tromping around after a rainfall, searching for elusive species. Yet, typical of my finicky palate at that age, I refused to even consider actually eating a mushroom. The horror.

Thankfully, things change, and some gluttons are made, not born.  I now enjoy eating wild mushrooms as much as I love foraging for them.

Although this recipe long predates an epic chanterelle harvest I did in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, it’s still my favorite way to showcase these meaty, woodsy-tasting golden mushrooms.  Hello, autumn.

WARM FINGERLING POTATO & CHANTERELLE SALAD

serves four as a starter

1 tablespoon + 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 lb. fingerling potatoes, parboiled and drained, and cut into 1/2-inch slices

3/4 lb. chanterelle mushrooms, wiped clean and quartered if large, halved if smaller

1 medium shallot, minced

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

1 tablespoon Champagne vinegar

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Parmigiano-Reggiano, for garnish

Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat, then add 1 tablespoon unsalted butter and the olive oil.  When butter is foamy, add chanterelles and cook until golden and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Important: the first few minutes of cooking, the mushrooms will release their liquid- you must keep cooking until the liquid has absorbed and mushrooms begin to brown.

Add remaining half tablespoon butter, and sauté shallots and thyme with chanterelles for 1 minute.  Add potatoes to heat through, being careful not to break them up as you stir. Remove from heat.

Allow salad to cool in large bowl for several minutes, then add Champagne vinegar, more  olive oil, if needed, and salt and pepper to taste.  Garnish with shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Serve warm.

©The Sustainable Kitchen 2001®

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