Archive for December, 2011

Farm to Plate: Part V

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when many Portlanders were still lost in the haze of leftover turkey sandwiches, a trio of Portland Farmers Market staffers hit the road for a one of a kind experience: a stewing hen harvest day at Persephone Farm.  We invite you to follow their adventure through a series of posts over the next few days that capture the reality and intensity of life on the farm and the reverence that comes with butchering your own dinner.

Farm to Plate: Part V

By Anna Curtin, Amber Holland and Nicki Passerella

Scalding the hen

When it came time to scald and eviscerate the hen, one of the most important things we learned was to have all the preparations made ahead of time. Before we began, several tables were already set up and cleaned, along with ample buckets for discarded pieces and the chickens themselves once the evisceration was complete. A nearby hose to wash the hens and keep the hot water flowing soon came in handy.

Elanor O’Brien demonstrates plucking

From the chopping block, the hens took a brief dip in hot water to loosen the feathers before evisceration. The first thing to go was the feathers, which are pulled out in the direction of growth. We quickly discovered that the feathers from a bird that is molting at the time of death are much more difficult to pluck because of the new growth coming in.

With Jeff’s guidance, we worked through eviscerating the birds. Once plucked, the next step was to remove the feet, which is done by making an incision at the ankle and bending the foot backward until it is clear where the foot meets the leg. Then the knife follows the path the rest of the way.

After the bird’s feet were removed, a vertical slit was made in the chicken’s skin from the top of the breast bone almost to the neck. Another cut was made horizontally at the shoulders to meet the first, making a “T” shape. Once the opening was big enough, you slide your hand inside the bird and trace your fingers around the inside of the rib cage, loosening any connective tissue. Then, with all the innards in hand, you must pull firmly to release the bird’s digestive tract, heart, kidney, fat, gizzards, etc.

A bowl of ice within reach, we carefully separated the fat and digestive tract from the organ meat. Most of this work is done by hand and it is quite slippery.  Eventually, the bowl of ice received the feet, heart, gizzards, and liver, for these can all be cooked and enjoyed! At this point, it was time to give the hens a rinse using a hose with good pressure, which helps out a lot. Once rinsed, the birds were ready to chill on ice before being bagged and distributed to the hen harvest participants.

The group gets down to business

Eviscerating a hen whose body still carries its own heat, to remove what was recently alive and breathing from a carcass, is truly a remarkable undertaking.  Our group of three culled six of the thirty five birds harvested over the course of the day, shepherding each one from field to cooler. As Jeff echoed when he harvested the first bird, we never felt calm, but with this experience, we were given the education and the confidence to humanely kill and process each chicken.

We left the farm much more connected to the source of our sustenance, mindful of the effort and investment – financial, emotional, personal – it takes to bring a living creature to the plate. We were exceedingly grateful to have participated in this community of common purpose – the purpose of thanksgiving, nourishment, and engagement in an interdependent, sustainable food system.

A special thanks to Jeff and Elanor for opening their farm to those who are interested in connecting with their food source. Download Persephone Farm’s recipe for Chicken Cacciatore.

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Farm to Plate: Part IV

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when many Portlanders were still lost in the haze of leftover turkey sandwiches, a trio of Portland Farmers Market staffers hit the road for a one of a kind experience: a stewing hen harvest day at Persephone Farm.  We invite you to follow their adventure through a series of posts over the next few days that capture the reality and intensity of life on the farm and the reverence that comes with butchering your own dinner.

Farm to Plate: Part IV

PFM attendee, Amber Holland, shares her personal account of the day:

My challenge for the day: hold a chicken, run my hands over her body, notice the color of her eyes and the way that she blinks, touch her comb and those funny dangly bits that hang below her beak, feel the bottoms of her feet and marvel at the softness, coo to her, recognize the life in my hands, thank her for her service to us, lay her down and raise and axe to her neck.

I am not going to lie or pretend that I was brave… I questioned my ability to go through with the harvest and I felt the lump of fear or maybe sadness form in my throat as I listened to Jeff’s words.  He started talking about the feeling of holding an animal so alive, giving a moment of thanks, lying her down on a block of wood with her head gently held between two nails, lifting and then quickly lowering the hatchet, then holding this headless creature in a bucket while the life drains from her body completely (it sounds awful but it sure is better than her running around).

I would soon know what it felt like to pull the feathers from the bird’s body to see what a small, fragile being she is without her wispy body armor, and then finally using a knife to open her body and place my hand on a set of vital organs that were once responsible for comical clucks, pecking at the ground, and forming and expelling eggs for our nourishment. I would feel the warmth of the organs, the surprisingly small heart, the pebble-filled gizzard, and the plastic-like esophagus.

Listening to Jeff as he talked about the process made it all real and helped me appreciate that these farmers aren’t heart-less slaughters. They are practical people that treat life with respect, dignity and feel the inevitable sorrow associated with the life cycle, be it plant or animal.

Amber's moment of truth

I looked at the other 20 people that were committed to connecting with their food in a way that most would never even consider and I knew that I was not alone in my angst.  What was I afraid of?  In a word: failure.   Somehow I would end up with the one hatchet that didn’t work.  Angst that the last moments of my avian provider would be full of fear and that she wouldn’t know how thankful we are for her.  Some may poo-poo being thankful for a chicken, saying chickens are stupid, no better than an insect, and good for only one thing. I am here to tell you just the opposite – that chickens are marvelously simplified creatures with a complete set of skills to feed you and your family all throughout (and at the end of) their lives.

To be continued…

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Farm to Plate: Part III

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when many Portlanders were still lost in the haze of leftover turkey sandwiches, a trio of Portland Farmers Market staffers hit the road for a one of a kind experience: a stewing hen harvest day at Persephone Farm.  We invite you to follow their adventure through a series of posts over the next few days that capture the reality and intensity of life on the farm and the reverence that comes with butchering your own dinner.

Farm to Plate: Part III

By Anna Curtin, Amber Holland and Nicki Passerella

Retired stewing hens awaiting their fate

Small farmers have the good fortune of being selective about which birds to cull.  Age alone doesn’t necessarily mean that the hen has stopped laying.  It’s necessary to take a closer inspection. The hens were turned on the side with wings and feet gently secured to prevent injury or escape while Elanor parted a few feathers to inspect the cloaca (the chicken’s sole exit).  If the cloaca was still pink and moist, the bird was likely still laying regularly and would be spared the harvest.  If a dry, yellow cloaca was revealed, she was a candidate for stewing.

Elanor noted that the Black Australorp, while great layers, are particularly flighty, and she was not exaggerating!  After several instances of being out-maneuvered by this gregarious group of lady birds, the first one was secured.  Eventually, the small cage used to corral the chickens was filled and wheeled just out of the way of the final destination.

When Jeff demonstrated with the first hen, he was gentle, accurate, quick and thoughtful.  He held the chicken on her side, sliding her neck between two nails in a solid tree stump, then elongated her neck by gently pulling the hen away from the nails.  By tucking the wings in and keeping ahold of her feet, the hen was surprising still and calm, just as Jeff told us she would be.  One swift strike of the axe and it was done.

Sharing the burden

Each PFM staffer took a slightly different approach to the actual execution, guided by emotional readiness, the “gross-out” factor, and a gut feeling that it was time.  The PFM trio chose a more collaborative approach, with one person to position and hold the hen and another to lift the axe and strike.  This alleviated the pressure to do it all – or worse, let the hen go too soon – and allowed us to share the emotional burden of the kill.

After beheading, the hen was held by her feet in a 5 gallon bucket so that the blood could drain effectively and the final movements of the animal could be contained were contained. (One fascinating and alarming part of killing a chicken is the activity immediately following death when one might expect the body turns off like a light switch. In fact, this is not the case, hence the saying about running around like that headless chicken.) While the anxiety of the dramatic activity and inexperience faded quickly, the unpleasantness of it remained.

To be continued…

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Farm to Plate: Part II

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when many Portlanders were still lost in the haze of leftover turkey sandwiches, a trio of Portland Farmers Market staffers hit the road for a one of a kind experience: a stewing hen harvest day at Persephone Farm.  We invite you to follow their adventure through a series of posts over the next few days that capture the reality and intensity of life on the farm and the reverence that comes with butchering your own dinner.

Farm to Plate: Part II

By Anna Curtin, Amber Holland and Nicki Passerella

Jeff Falen greets the group

Once the group of thirty was assembled and introduced, Jeff addressed everyone with some thoughts to set the tone for the day. Our collection of neighbors, former farm staffers, market shoppers, curious eaters, and farm friends listened as Jeff talked about the intent behind the second annual hen harvest, that of building a connection with our food source.

Jeff gave thanks for the contributions of the chickens we would cull that day, noting how they play a role in the ongoing health and productivity of the farm, in addition to providing enjoyment for those who tend them. Jeff pointed out the reality that life feeds life, a cycle that is illustrated to an extent by the damage to vegetables when they are harvested and consumed.

This sequence is made much more visceral by culling chickens who have outlived their egg laying days and whose livelihoods are no longer in balance with the resources it takes to keep them alive on the farm. We were encouraged to engage with the harvest on whatever level we felt comfortable, from simply observing the process to executing each step along the way. With that support, the work got underway.

Persephone Farm's mobile chicken coop

Elanor, star chicken wrangler, and a few volunteers took responsibility for collecting the first group of 8 chickens.  (Did you know that many chicken farmers pick a different color/breed each time a new flock is added to the farm?)  A couple of red chickens from another group had accidently found themselves among the 90+ Black Australorp birds that were being “retired” from the egg laying business and graduating to stew hens.  We knew to leave the red chickens alone as they were a full year younger and still regularly laying.

To be continued…

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Farm To Plate: Part I

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when many Portlanders were still lost in the haze of leftover turkey sandwiches, a trio of Portland Farmers Market staffers hit the road for a one of a kind experience: a stewing hen harvest day at Persephone Farm.  We invite you to follow their adventure through a series of posts over the next few days that capture the reality and intensity of life on the farm and the reverence that comes with butchering your own dinner.

Farm to Plate: Part I

By Anna Curtin, Amber Holland and Nicki Passerella

Solar panels at the farm

We recently took part in a stewing hen harvest day hosted by Jeff Falen and Elanor O’Brien at Persephone Farm, the land on which they have been farming organically for more than 20 years. In farming, Jeff and Eleanor work to create a closed loop ecosystem in rhythm with the seasons with minimal reliance on unsustainable external inputs like plastic greenhouses & gas powered farm equipment. The pair also values the opportunity to guide eaters closer to the land and food that sustain us, one of the driving forces behind the hen harvest day.

Journeying two hours south on Interstate 5 to reach the farm, located between Lebanon and Sweet Home, each of us was struck by the fact that Willamette Valley farmers who come to Portland’s many farmers markets make this monotonous trip all the time – week after week, season after season, year after year. After full-time farm work, off-farm work, and prepping for farmers markets, farmers get into their box trucks and hit the road to bring urban Portlanders the bounty of rural Oregon. The behind the scenes effort this entails was an excellent reminder to us to give thanks for the fresh, vibrant, and varied abundance we see at market each week.

Harvest Day work area

As we made the turn into Persephone Farm, we were greeted by colorful rows of cool weather greens stretching out from both sides of the driveway. Luscious shades of green and purple guided our way to the harvest day work area, equipped with a chopping block, tables with canopies for protection from inclement weather (a sure thing on this dreary November day), and a propane burner on which pots of hot water would be heated to scald the hens before plucking. After being warmly greeted by Elanor, we pitched in with set up and got ready for what the day would bring.

To be continued…

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Green on Red: Christmas Tamales

Essay by Aaron Gilbreath

When I told an old friend that you know it’s Christmas time when the tamales appear by the dozen in your refrigerator, she asked how you know when it’s Hanukkah time. “When there are eight tamales on your plate,” I said. She lives in Georgia now, but we both grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, where tamales are a holiday staple. I moved to Portland in 2000, but I still associate Christmas more closely with tamales than I do chestnuts or eggnog, and my need for the warm corn dish has only increased with time and distance.

Tamale from a cart at the Portland Farmer's Market

Thanks Flickr: Tamale From our own King Market

Many people in the Southwest know someone who makes Christmas tamales – a coworker’s mother-in-law, a friend’s abuela. I once met a male nurse at an orthopedist who sold homemade salsa and tamales to both staff and patients. I’d broken my elbow skateboarding that winter, and while he checked my damaged bones, I asked how business was. “Business is always good,” he said. “But Christmas is booming.” Those unfortunate souls who don’t have a personal tamale connection usually find a good restaurant that sells them in bulk. Even though he knows people who make homemade tamales, my dad has taken to getting his at a fifty year old family restaurant in downtown Phoenix. He buys five dozen red, one dozen green, freezes half of his haul to ration during the winter, and when I still lived nearby, he and my mom and I would eat the others daily from the fridge while they were fresh. Red contains beef or pork stewed in red chile; green contains a meatless mixture of gooey cheese, diced green chile and corn kernels. Neither he nor I eat the green. Mom eats those. To me, green corn tamales’ masa tastes too sweet, as if spiked with cheap white sugar, and the filling feels like a greased slug in my mouth. Because she’s my mom, I can forgive her culinary inadequacies.

My dad likes to tell this one tamale story. He grew up in Florence, a small farming and prison community in southeastern Arizona. It sits on the Gila River, which runs east to west through town and marks the original boundary between Arizona and Mexico, before the Gadsden Purchase extended the boundary in 1854. Florence is one of the oldest American settlements in the entire state. Dad lived there between 1946 and 1955, and his core social group consisted of his younger brother Eddie and about five friends, mostly Hispanic, like Eddie Espinosa. Every Christmas all of them would walk house to house singing carols. They’d step onto the porch and sing. Residents would peek through the curtains then come out and hand each kid a tamale. “And we’d eat it,” Dad says, “right there on the porch.” Then the group would go to the next house and sing and get a tamale. “And we’d eat that one too.” They went house to house and got so full that, when they couldn’t eat any more, they dropped those hot tamales into their pockets: “Use them as hand-warmers,” Dad says. “It was always so cold out back then, or it felt like it was. So we’d stick our hands in with the tamales and warm them up. Then later,” he says, “we’d eat those too.”

When I was a vegetarian, I had to refrain from eating the red tamales that I craved. During what I now think of as The Drought Years, I’d order tamales at a restaurant, and the waitress would ask, “Green or red?” Suppressing a sigh I’d answer, “Green, please.” Chewing that rubbery yellow cheese, its lumpy hulk nearly resistant to mastication, I always wished I could conjure the red chile flavor through force of will, just imagine it into being and onto my food by some sort of alimentary projection. The tongue has a memory. It does not have Jedi powers.

I should have invented a tamale-flavored gum by now. They have strawberry, mint-melon, mango sorbet, every imaginable flavor. I mean, companies produce squid chips. Red tamale flavored gum would be good for vegetarians who are trying to stave off their inner carnivore. For years I’ve been joking about making an enchilada-scented air freshener designed to sooth homesick Southwesterners.

The problem with so many vegetarian tamales is that they involve fillings that fail to capture the simple yet essential tamale flavor. I’m all for experimentation. Combine the unexpected, expand our palate, reinvent the wheel, go wild. But in my experience, New Agey flavor combinations involving stewed banana flower and parsnip, or thyme and spiced pumpkin, are not only hard to take seriously, they often taste like nothing more than a bowl of soup shoved into a corn wrapper. One veggie-friendly joint I went to in Northern California spiked theirs with sunflower seeds. Even by the most liberal standards, these were tamales in shape only. That and I’m a picky jerk.

I’ll admit: green is fine in a pinch, it’s edible, it’s just not my preference, and it doesn’t taste like Christmas. When it comes to music and food, I know you can’t argue taste. If you like something, you like something, and if gloppy, green chile-laced cheese bearing the shoddy, heat-lamp churro quality of state fair food is your thing, then who am I to argue with that? But one thing you can’t argue with is history. Consider the record:

14th century to 1521: Aztec culture dominates Meso-America.

1st millennium AD: Corn spreads from what would later become Mexico into the Southwest.

1848: the United States forces Mexico to sell what would later become Arizona, New Mexico, etcetera for $15 million dollars.

1889: The once svelte Germanic god Odin debuts as the remodeled “Santa,” a fat, elf-employing, North Pole resident, and after taking a bite of each of the two tamale varieties his elves brought back from Santa Fe, he bans the color green from his workshop and declares red his holiday’s official color.

A few Christmases ago, I spent the holiday with my folks in Arizona. Mom called Dad that afternoon and asked, “What’d you do for lunch?” I was standing beside him at the kitchen counter.

He said, “Had tamales with Aaron.” Concerned about my father’s health, my mother asked how many he’d eaten. “I had two. Aaron had six.” We’d only had three a piece, but they laughed at his joke, and I could hear her joyful cackle three feet from the ear piece. “Yep,” Dad said, “he needs to be stopped. We’ll have to reduce his inheritance by two tamales.” She said something I couldn’t make out, and with his nose crinkled up and face lit up in a grin, he said, “No, red. We wouldn’t touch your green.”

Aaron Gilbreath, the hardest working man in arts and letters, is usually obsessed with burritos. His work has been seen here, and less importantly the New York Times, Paris Review, Gastronomica, Portland Mercury, and Alimentum.  Find him and his other work (and you really should), at this link: http://aarongilbreath.wordpress.com/.

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Ignorance is a Gift

Article and Photos by Elizabeth Miller

Last year, when flipping through a magazine at my parents’ house sometime right around the holidays, I came across the most astonishing picture I’d ever seen.  Crisp brown edges of something, dripping with molten cheese of some sort, every nook and crack bursting with what looked to be cream sauce, or maybe a béchamel?  I didn’t know, but I needed to eat it right then.

I took the magazine directly to my mom, a woman who is not, by nature, an adventurous cook, and pointed to the picture.

“You need to make this,” I said, firmly jabbing my finger into the page.


My mom looked at the picture quizzically.  “What is it?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I admitted.  “I…I can’t know.  It’s going to be really, really bad for me, and I don’t want to know how bad.”

My mom, still not understanding what I was getting at, cocked her head slightly to one side.

“Look,” I said.  “I think I need to eat that.  Whatever it is, it looks delicious.  But I can’t make it.  If I know what is in it, I won’t eat it, because just look at it!  Cheese!  Cream sauce!  Potatoes!  Are those potatoes?  I don’t even know, but, man, you’ve just got to make it.  Like, now.  Please?”

My mom, not quite understanding my line of reasoning, gently took the magazine from me, never saying a word.  I stood in front of her, wondering what to say next, my mouth slowly opening and then closing again, giving me the look of a recently caught trout as I contemplated how best to continue my begging.  When my mom slowly put the magazine down on the counter, cover down, I knew my campaign had come to a close.  There would be no cheesy, creamy, crisp-edged delight coming my way.  No matter that I didn’t know what the object of my obsession actually was, my heart sank a little.

And then, like a true holiday miracle, the dish appeared, just like that, on our holiday dinner table.  Next to the turkey and the greens, there sat my long lost love, the root vegetable gratin of my dreams.  I only now know that what I was so frantically craving turned out to be a vegetable gratin, because after I ate at least two servings (all right, three) of the heavenly dish, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to go back to the magazine where I had first spotted the creamy wonder and finally find out what, exactly, comprised it and all of its cheesy wonder.

Now, I don’t generally condone keeping secret the components of a recipe.  Sharing the gift of food is a particular love of mine, and whenever people ask me what went into a dish, I happily list off the ingredients, taking time to note any important particulars of the recipe in question.  But with this dish, you just can’t do that.  If people become privy to what goes into this dish, common sense, that which keeps us all from succumbing to evolutionary perils, will tell them to step back from this dish, to run far, far away from it, never looking back.  But if you serve this to people as is, with no explanation, you’ll find that it will be difficult to keep people away from it.

So, as a gift to those around you, I suggest you take advantage of the wonderful selection of winter root vegetables available right now—potatoes, parsnips, celery root, turnips—and make this incredible dish for the people you love.  And because you love them, you will never, ever tell them what went into it, making it so creamy and rich, so deeply flavorful.  It’s the holidays, so you owe it to yourself and everyone around you to enjoy a show-stoppingly delicious gratin, once a year, when we celebrate the fact that sometimes it’s best to simply enjoy those around us, and whatever they kindly agree to do in the name of indulgent, delightful, blissful ignorance.

Root Vegetable Gratin

Gather Ingredients

The types of root vegetables I have listed here represent exactly what went into this particular gratin.  You can, of course, swap these out for any root vegetables you want.  Parsnips are good in this, and I’ll bet sweet potatoes would add a nice punch.

2 cups heavy cream

1 teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

3 pounds russet potatoes, peeled, then sliced extremely thin

1 large leek, rinsed, then sliced into thin half-moons

1 large celery root, about 15 ounces, peeled, then sliced extremely thin

8 ounces fontina cheese, coarsely shredded

 Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a medium saucepan, combine cream, salt, pepper, and nutmeg,  Bring to a gentle simmer, then immediately remove from the heat and set aside.

In a large baking dish (I used a tall, round gratin dish, but any dish around 8”x13” large with tall sides will work), lay ½ of the sliced potatoes.  Cover with all of the leek slices, the celery root slices, then half of the shredded cheese.  Lay the rest of the potatoes over the cheese.  Pour the cream over the potatoes.  Sprinkle the remainder of the cheese over the cream-covered potatoes.

Bake the gratin for 1 hour and 15 minutes, until the top is golden brown and the cream is bubbling rapidly around the vegetables.  Remove from oven, and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.

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