Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Some Recipes for Local Meat, and M Gets a Chance to Interview

Nikki Royer of Royer Farm Fresh was kind enough to take time from their busy spring farming schedule to answer some questions I had about local, sustainable farming and meat supplies. Today, she answers a question from M, age 5, whose been known to eat half a pound of Royer bacon in one sitting. And she shares some of her favorite recipes.

Asks M, age 5, with a mouthful of bacon and some greasy fingers he's wiping on his pants, “Why is your bacon so good?”
Taste and quality are a bigger focus than speed and cost. The bacon is cured with a sugar-based cure and smoked with hickory flavor. Plus the pigs get fresh air, sunshine, and exercise while eating a simple, balanced diet.

And believe you me, it's some good bacon. The one thing Nikki warned me about when I first bought it was that less-processed bacon cooks much more quickly than shrink-wrapped bacon from the grocery store because it contains less "stuff." She's right. I've got a good bacon-cooking rhythm down now, but it took a little bit to get used to how quickly fresher bacon cooks than the Eckrich we were used to.

But enough of my yakking. Let's get onto some of Nikki's favorite recipes.

Wild Mushroom Beef Roast

A great mix of flavor and texture, easy to make and special enough for company!

2.5 lb roast (chuck, arm, tip, or rump)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/2 tsp. thyme leaves, crushed
3/4 cup ready-to-serve beef broth
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/4 cup dry red wine
2 bulbs garlic, minced
8 ounces assorted mushrooms, such as shitake, cremini, oyster, and button, cut into quarters Fresh parsley (optional)

  1. Combine flour, salt, pepper and thyme in small bowl. Place beef in a 4-1/2 to 5-1/2 quart slow cooker. Sprinkle with flour mixture; toss to coat.
  2. Combine broth, tomato paste, wine and garlic in small bowl; mix well. Add to beef. Add mushrooms; mix well.
  3. Cover and cook on HIGH 6 to 7 hours or on LOW 8 to 10 hours, or until beef is tender. Do not lift the lid. (No stirring is necessary during cooking.) Stir well before serving. Garnish with parsley, if desired.

Mexi-Lamb Tortilla Lasagna
This recipe, from the American Lamb Board is a fast way to get multiple food groups in one dish. If your family doesn’t like sour cream, just eliminate it and double the amount of salsa. So that we can have leftovers, I usually double the recipe and bake it in a 13 X 9 pan.

1 pound ground lamb
1 cup salsa
1 can (15 ounces) red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup (8 ounces) light or regular sour cream
1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
3 10-inch flour tortillas
1 cup shredded lettuce
1 medium tomato, chopped
Toppings: shredded cheddar cheese and salsa

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

  1. In a skillet, cook and crumble the ground lamb until it's no longer pink. Drain well. Stir in the salsa and beans, and set aside.
  2. In a bowl, mix the sour cream, cheese, and flour.
  3. Spray a 10-inch pie plate with nonstick cooking spray. Place one tortilla in the bottom of the dish. Top with 1/3 of the meat mixture and 1/2 of the sour cream mixture. Top with a second tortilla and repeat with 1/3 meat and remaining sour cream. Top with a third tortilla and remaining meat.
  4. Bake for 25 minutes or until heated through. Let stand for 5 minutes before cutting into wedges. Top each serving with shredded lettuce and chopped tomato. If you like, garnish with the additional cheese and salsa.

Fall-off-the-Bone BBQ Pork Ribs

Another slow-cooker family favorite that came from the October 2006 issue of Good Housekeeping.

1 medium onion chopped
1/2 cup ketchup
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 tomato paste
2 Tbsp. paprika
2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp. yellow mustard
1tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
4 pounds pork spare ribs or country style ribs

  1. Coat a 4 -1/2 to 6 quart slow cooker with nonstick cooking spray, and then add in and stir together the onion, ketchup, vinegar, sugar, tomato paste, paprika, Worcestershire, mustard, salt, and pepper until mixed.
  2. Layer spare ribs or country style ribs over sauce and cook for 8 hours on low. Do not lift lid while cooking.

Many thanks to Nikki for shedding a little light on sustainable farming. If you’re in the Indianapolis area, stop by one of the farmers markets that features Royer Farm Fresh meats. If you're not, check out www.localharvest.org to see what local and sustainable options are available in your area.

By the choices we all make regarding what we're willing to put on our table, we can change the cruel and sometimes toxic meat industry. If you can, do try to buy local, where you can know how the animals were treated and how the meat was processed. I can attest that it makes a huge difference in taste, and it will support a meat industry that is humane, safe, and carries a much smaller carbon footprint.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Talking Sustainable Farming with the Royers

Nikki and Scott Royer with the next generation of farmers-in-training, Knic and Cale.
Yesterday was the opening of our local farmer’s market, and the boys and I met our friend Carla and her daughter for some foraging, tasting, stocking up, and reconnecting with the farmers we hadn’t seen for nine months. One of my favorite vendors, Royer Farm Fresh, was there with locally and humanely produced beef, pork, lamb, and eggs.

Recently, Nikki Royer, who with her husband Scott runs Royer Farm Fresh, took the time to answer a few questions about local meat: the economics, environmental impact, and advantages. (She also provided some candid shots from the farm.) We’ve been a Royer customer for a year or so now, and it was great to learn a little more about what goes on behind the scenes to make a fantastic and sustainable leg of lamb…

The farm has been in your family for several generations. Did you always know you’d be involved in farming?

Raising livestock was and is something Scott and I really enjoy. We wanted farming to be part of our lives but 19 years ago when we started dating we did not have a specific plan laid out. We both grew up showing animals in 4-H and farming providing my family’s livelihood. While attending Purdue University, Scott and I bought our first sheep together. After getting married in 1994, Scott worked with my Dad for about a year on the farm while I started a job in pharmaceutical sales. Scott eventually took a research scientist position, where he stayed until my Dad’s unexpected death in 2000. Scott then reduced his off-farm job to half-time while taking over the major farm production and management responsibilities. In 2001 Scott returned to the farm full-time and we entered into a long-term farm lease with my Mom.

After about a year we begin analyzing how we could make the farm a success for future generations just like my family had done for us. With our knowledge of beef and lamb production, taking into account our moderate farm size—300 acres—and our willingness to move beyond basic commodity agriculture production, we decided to sell beef and lamb direct to the consumer. Ten years ago I did not know this is what Scott and I would be doing, but we both feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to carve this path for ourselves and would not want to be doing anything else. We are very committed to raising natural, wholesome beef, lamb, and pork and look forward to continuing to serve even more customers.

What distinguishes the meat from your farm from the meat someone might buy from a large chain grocery store?

First, the direct one-on-one contact we have with our customers helps ensure people can know exactly how their meat was raised: what the animals ate, where they lived and if we gave the animals any hormones or antibiotics, which we don’t. In fact, people are welcome to visit the farm and check things out for themselves.

Second, the lamb is dry-aged a minimum of one week and the beef a minimum of two weeks. Most grocery store meat is not dry-aged. Dry-aging helps to create a better eating experience because the meat becomes tenderer over time and with some water evaporative loss the flavor is better. Also the butcher shop we use is a small, family-owned facility. The animals are treated humanely and all the meat is cut and wrapped by hand.

Finally, our meat just simply tastes better. The dry-aging plays a part in the improved quality but that is just part of the package. Our breeding stock is not just any type cow or sheep; we have selected animals over the past seven years with a goal of producing healthy, meaty beef and lamb. We feed the animals simple, balanced, high-quality feeds. Our cattle and sheep are raised on pasture and the pigs are raised outdoors. All three species have access to shelter, plenty of room to roam and clean, fresh water to drink.

Who is your typical customer?

We probably do not have just one typical customer, but our meat mainly is purchased by consumers needing a variety of qualities in their meat.

  1. The meat connoisseurs love the taste, tenderness, flavor, and variety.
  2. Families on a budget appreciate the discount volume packages of beef, lamb, and pork.
  3. People whose cooking experience is limited to making something from a box or take-out bag value the good, easy recipes that we share and our assistance as they transition to a healthy, simpler, balanced diet.

We also supply a few restaurants with beef, lamb, and pork.

What was behind your decision to offer 100% grass-fed beef?
We have two main reasons for the addition of 100% grass-fed beef. When we first started selling at farmer’s markets in 2003, we had maybe a dozen inquiries about grass-fed beef the entire year. Last year (2006) multiple customers were asking weekly. So we have seen a definite increase in interest. Also, a grass-fed program is more sustainable for our farm in the long-term. We will buy less inputs and the animals and pastures will have a more symbiotic relationship: The pastures feed the cattle and sheep and the animals fertilize the grasses.

All of our beef and lamb is grass-fed—the sheep and cattle are out on pasture all year long. They are never confined to just dirt lots. By using a variety of grasses and other plants (like turnips, rye, and sorghum-sudan grass) the animals are grazing green plants March through December. In January, February, and early March, the animals have access to hay bales along with stockpiled pastures consisting of non-growing plants. Depending on their age, these cattle and sheep also can eat grain (primarily corn) out of self-serve feeders. To add the 100% grass-fed beef, we have kept on doing what we had always done, but just eliminated the grain.

How does the future of small family-owned farms look from your vantage point?

About like any small business in America—challenging, yet with unlimited opportunities. Some of the main difficulties facing farms of all sizes across the country are land costs, taxes, and the lack of a new approach to farming on a professional level. It is rare to find land that is priced based on its agricultural production value as opposed to the worth for some other activity.

However, there are still opportunities, if you are a good steward of the land, absentee owners are more likely to work with you on leases and rental agreements. Second, taxes are ever increasing and are based more on the value of land for uses other than agricultural. Finally, there are plenty of professional farmers who are responsible land owners, but many of them are large-scale commodity producers who make their living producing large volumes of one or two undifferentiated products. There are a few people farming like us (taking food from pasture to plate), but not very many. We approach raising beef, lamb, and pork not as a hobby, but as a business where people are depending on us to raise their food right.

Are there any good resources for people who want to buy local meat?

If you are in the Indianapolis area, visit us at one of the farmers markets we attend. You are also welcome to visit the farm and pick up your meat when you come.

If these options are not right for you, try your local farmers’ market, visit www.localharvest.org, or call a local meat packing plant to find about farmers that are butchering meat.

I really appreciate Nikki taking the time from what is for her an incredibly busy season to shed a little light on local, sustainable farming. In the next post, she'll share a couple favorite recipes and answer a burning question from M, age 5, who is one of the farm's biggest fans.

If you're in the Indianapolis area, you can stock up on Royer Farm Fresh meat at these locations throughout the summer and fall:

  • Broad Ripple Farmers Market: Broad Ripple High School; Saturdays, May 26 through October 27; 8 a.m. to noon.
  • Zionsville Farmers Market: Corner of Main and Hawthorne; Saturdays, June 2 through September 29; 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.
  • Fishers Farmers Market: The Municipal Complex off 116 Street; Saturdays, June 2 through October 6; 8 a.m. to noon.
  • Terre Haute Farmers Market: 9th and Cherry Streets; Saturdays, June 2 through October; 8 a.m. to noon.
  • White Violet Center for Eco-Justice: Saint Mary-of-the-Woods; Wednesdays, May 30 through October; 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Royer Farm Fresh: Tuesdays, starting June 12; 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Party House and Party Nuts

I first encountered the Party House about 10 years ago while driving with my friend Kim. "We're going to go by the most tacky house you've ever seen," she said. For three miles I would question every ranch sporting too many potted plants on the porch and some gargoyles, asking, "Is that the one?"

"No," she'd say. "You'll know it when you see it."

"Is that it?" I'd ask as we drove by a two-story with a phalanx of those bent-over-lady stand-ups in the garden.

"Trust me," she reiterated. "You'll know it."

And then we came upon an indescribable sight. A huge windowed mansion with Gothic light posts, a circular driveway winding around a nautical-themed iron fountain, Christmas decorations displayed in the upper left picture window, even though it was September, and porches that made elaborate waves from the second floor. "Holy Pete, what is that?" I screamed.

"That" was the Party House.

For years the house held a strange fascination for me. It and the two other houses on the "compound" were owned by an (it's fair to say) eccentric dealer in concrete who had bought a small ranch house several decades prior, gussied it up with Italian mafioso decor, and proceeded to buy the surrounding properties, building two other houses (his main residence and the Party House). The complex was constantly being updated, added to: a gargoyle here, multi-colored glass block there.

Last summer Phil and I drove by the house, and noticed the weeds were getting out of control and there was an IndyRepo.com sign in the front. The house had been foreclosed. I immediately decided we needed to buy the Party House. Phil was a little more reluctant, thinking perhaps the price was a bit out of our range and, well, the house was horrific. But I loved the idea of never having to give directions to our home. "We live in that abomination on Kessler," I would tell new friends, adding, "when you get there, just park anywhere near the life-size dolphin fountain."

I got our realtor to book me a showing, and was blown away by the sheer workmanship and vision coming together in such a tacky interior. Rooms flowed by half-staircases into other rooms. The place was huge but had only had three bathrooms, one that was in process and for which you needed to turn sideways to walk between the toilet and bathtub. The first-floor bathroom was a half-bath with a glass door directly facing the toilet. All of the floors were Italian tile -- not a bit of hardwood or carpet to be found. Walls were lined top to bottom in native quartz. The home didn't have an official bedroom or closet, just room after room of flat surface. The "kitchen" was actually a little island with small appliances that would only work for heating up appetizers or giving the caterers somewhere to set their things. None of the house was up to code. It was a wreck. "I don't know," said my realtor as we walked in, "it makes me think of hookers."

And yet, I thought about the house constantly, checked the listings to see the price drop, drove by anytime I could.

The place eventually sold for half its listed price -- not much more than our little Cape Cod. This weekend the boys and I drove by and saw that the weeds were under control, palettes of wood were outside awaiting new projects, and the house no longer felt abandoned. The original owner, who died last fall several months after being foreclosed, would be pleased that his vision didn't go to ruin.

In honor of the Party House's new lease on life, I'm sharing a Curried Pecan recipe that's been a party go-to for me for a few years. These are so incredibly good, with the sweet curry balancing the rich pecans; I think I first found the recipe in Real Simple magazine, but I'm no longer sure. These lovely orangish-brownish nuts would be perfect in bowls perched around atop Gothic Italian-tiled tables, while the booze flows too heavily and party-goers attempt to keep from falling down open staircases with no railing. And the nuts can be made in a tiny kitchen that's only good for heating appetizers and giving the caterer a place to set things.

Curried Pecans

1 pound (about 5 cups) pecans
1 egg white at room temperature
1 tsp. water
3/4 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. curry powder (I use 1 Tbsp. hot and 1 Tbsp. mild)
1 Tbsp. sea salt

Heat an oven to 250 degrees. Pour the pecans on a cookie sheet in a single layer and toast in the oven, stirring once or twice, for about 10 minutes -- until the room starts smelling like wonderful warm nuts. In a big bowl, beat the egg white and water until it's frothy and thick. Stir in the toasted nuts, and then the sugar, curry powder, and sea salt. Mix around well, and then pour back onto the cookie sheet in a single layer. Bake for about an hour, stirring every 20 minutes or so.

Cinnamon Nuts: For a variation, substitute 4 cups almonds, walnuts, or a combination for the pecans. Substitute 1 Tbsp. cinnamon for the curry. Lower the salt to 1 tsp. Lower the sugar to 1/2 cup.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Happy Mother's Day!

I'm still trying to get caught up after five days traveling for work. I often will come home Thursday night from these sales conferences, even though Friday is dubbed a "travel day," but that always means getting home around midnight and then going into work the next day. So this year I took advantage of the "travel day" and scheduled an 11:00 direct flight from Tampa to Indianapolis that would have me home in time to run a few errands, throw in the laundry, and still have time to pick up the boys early. In fact, our flight was cancelled for mechanical issues and we had to fly right past Indy from Tampa to La Guardia, change airlines, and go from NYC to Indy. I got home around 8:00 Friday night. And I was at La Guardia only long enough to down an $8.99 egg salad sandwich. On white bread.

So, getting back up to speed on the blog has been slow. This week I'll be back in the swing.

Fortunately, today's been the sort of lazy day we moms deserve once a year. Phil got up with the boys, who usually start rising about 5:30, but stayed in bed until 7:00 today. I made some rhubarb jam from the rhubarb overtaking our garden. I took the boys out on an errand. T just went down for a nap and I went to do more work, but found the server is down. This might be my cosmic sign to let the work go for the weekend.

The best thing today, though, was Phil's Mother's Day present to me: Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. I didn't even realize this book was out; Phil didn't know that I worship Alice Waters, who back in the 1970s brought the idea of fresh, seasonal, local products to a new restaurant she was opening in Berkeley, Chez Panisse, that is now considered the best restaurant in the country. She's also started other programs like the Edible Garden program in California in which kids in the public school system -- many who live in low-income families -- grow their own food for school lunches. She's just amazing. I had no idea this book existed, but I've been sneaking reads every time the boys have had a few quiet minutes.
For all of you moms, grandmas, godmothers, wanna-be moms, or best aunts ever, Happy Mother's Day!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Rubbing Shoulders with the Stars

I'm traveling for work this week, so the kitchen-recountings are going to be pretty spare. It'll be a week of lots of hotel buffets and stolen jaunts to the Whole Foods a couple blocks down the road.

This past weekend I tried to impress M with my limited celebrity access. It's never worked in the past. As we were watching Monsters, Inc., for example, M was confused and then just plain bored when I tried to explain that Mommy and Daddy used to live just a couple blocks from the man who does the voice of Randall.

But he's getting older, so when M was playing with some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I tried again to impress him. I said, "This will be hard to explain, but movies have people who write them, and one of Mommies friends from college was a writer on the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie."

His eyes got very wide and awed. He thinks I'm cool, I thought. And he replied, "There's. A. New. Teenage. Mutant. Ninja. Turtles. Movie??!!"

Friday, May 04, 2007

Two Insanely Easy Desserts

Last night I was worn out but in the mood to cook, or at least produce. So I made two desserts that took about five minutes each of hands-on time.

The first were Acai pops for M & T. I'm trying to wean them from the nutritionless supersweet popsicles that they love, and this recipe from Super Natural Cooking seemed perfect: Just vanilla yogurt, some acai smoothie blend, and maybe a teensy bit of simple syrup to make it a bit sweeter.

Acai berries are a fruit that grows in South America on acai palms. The fruit is said to be a SUPERFOOD, rich in dietary fiber, fatty acids, potassium, pixie dust, and I forget what-all. It's becoming available at natural food stores in frozen, pureed "smoothie packs" that are about three ounces each. I'd picked up a package of smoothie packs the last time I was at Wild Oats.

To make the pops, you just let the smoothie pack sit for five minutes, then crumble it into a blender with 1/2 cup vanilla-flavored yogurt. (The author suggests full-fat yogurt, but I couldn't do it and went fat free.) Mix this in the blender and taste the mixture; it it doesn't taste sweet enough, sweeten it with some simple syrup. Now use some more vanilla yogurt to fill popsicle molds about 1/2 to 2/3 full. Then fill the rest of the way with the acai/yogurt mixture. Use the end of a spoon to swirl around each pop so you get a lovely gradation when the pop is unmolded: cream-colored on the top, swirled purple and cream in the middle, and rich purple on the bottom.

I unmolded them tonight after dinner, and M was wary, but T, who could eat gallons of yogurt on his own, loved them.

I also made what I thought was a brilliant new dessert: rice pudding with risotto. Turns out I'm not the first person to think of making sweet risotto, I later dishearteningly found some recipes from other cooks. But it still was pretty fabulous. Here is the superquick version I made, and a little more dawdly traditional method.

Risotto Pudding Two Ways

2 Tbsp. butter
1 cup Arborio rice
3 cups milk
1 tsp. cinnamon
2/3 cup sugar
1 or 2 tsp. vanilla
Raisins if you like (me, I don't)

SuperQuick Version: Melt the butter in a pressure cooker turned to the Browning setting. Add the rice and stir around to coat in the butter. Add the milk and cinnamon, give it a stir or two. Secure the lid and process on high pressure for 11 minutes. Let the pressure come down naturally; don't release it quickly. Now stir in the sugar and vanilla, and if you like, raisins.

Dawdly Version: In a saucepan, heat the milk to just warmed -- it shouldn't be boiling. In another, medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the rice and stir around to coat in the butter. Now lower the heat and add a ladle of the warmed milk and, using a wooden spoon, meditatively stir it around until much of the milk has evaporated, but some still remains; the rice shouldn't be dry. Add another ladle and keep doing this for 20 minutes or so until the milk has turned all creamy and the risotto is al dente. Stir in the sugar and vanilla, and if you like, raisins.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Day the Music Died

When Phil and I bought this little house back in 2001, it came with a "newly remodeled kitchen." This included the standard appliance package that comes with every new slapped-up house in our area: the side-by-side fridge with ice-in-door, the smooth-top electric range, the dishwasher that you need to pre-wash and post-wash dishes in order to use. Although we've moaned about the appliances for five years, with the exception of the dishwasher they've done their job, so we haven't replaced them. But I've eyed lovely gas ranges and freezer-below fridges, waiting for the day something would break down.

This weekend a blighted star hung over our house. First, our lawn mower took a nosedive, and Phil had to take it to the repair shop and then go to our neighbor, hat somewhat in hand, asking to use her mower so that we wouldn't look the folks on the street with the car engine hanging from a tree and peat moss for sale in the driveway. Then we had Phil's sister over and the la Croix didn't feel as cold as it should; the next day we paid a premium for a Sunday repairman to pronounce the refrigerator's imminent demise-by-compressor. Later that day we realized our 12-year-old cat hadn't been seen for hours, and I was fairly certain, based on our weekend track record, she'd dragged herself into the crawlspace to expire. You'll be relieved to know Billie's alive and well and not waiting for me to find her rotting corpse.

With the fridge barely keeping things cold enough to avoid e Coli, and having only a couple days left of even that limited performance, we packed up the boys and went to the appliance megastore. I wasn't in the mood to lay down serious cash, but this was the opportunity to get the amazing, Barefoot Contessa-worthy fridge I'd dreamed of, so tried to ignore the checkbook balance and just enjoy the moment. I wasn't expecting a Subzero or Viking, mind you. That would be greedy. But I did immediately gravitate to a KitchenAid with huge doors, a massive freezer on the bottom, and a slick stainless steel interior. I have, after all, really enjoyed cooking food lately. And I've always enjoyed eating food. So it really was essential.

What we found, however, is that we don't live in a spacious house in the Hamptons. We live in a 1950s Cape Cod with small rooms and tight spaces. And no fridge on my first-tier list could remotely fit the space without knocking out some of already spare cabinets. In fact, no fridge on my second tier fit the space either. I refused to buy the brand that had konked out on us, which the repairman said was notorious for compressor failure (clue: the brand rhymes with "Meneral Nelectric"). So what we ended up with was a very modest, side-by-side fridge with ice-in-door that almost exactly resembles the much maligned fridge we were replacing, save for one major detail: It's got much less space. Which makes the half a grass-fed cow I just reserved with my friend Carla seem very, very large.

To cheer myself, I'm dreaming of the day the smooth-top electric stove will finally bite the dust and we can get an enormous eight-burner, dual-oven Viking to put in its place.