farm life

During my stint in Hawai’i, one question I got a lot was, “So, what exactly are you doing?” I think that is a legitimate question for a number of reasons. Those reasons include: 1. I was not doing ‘normal’ Hawaii things. 2. Many people (understandably) are unaware about what happens day-to-day on a farm. Here is my official answer to that question!

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I was working with a lot of food crops — planting, fertilizing, pruning, weeding, harvesting. One thing that I was not doing was watering. You do not often need to water plants on the eastern side of Hawai’i — check out how much rain the area gets in a year! Below are images of the main garden, as well as lilikois (Hawaiian passionfruit), avocados, lemons, and Hawaiian Hot Peppers, all crops that I dealt with on a regular basis.

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I also became a wheelbarrow aficionado. Below are big loads of cassava and sweet potato that would have been no fun to carry by hand. Wheelbarrows are so useful!

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I cooked and preserved the crops I harvested. Below are images of bananas being dehydrated and the banana stand from where I picked them, my typical haul of fruits in any given day, and guava jam I processed and ate over oatmeal.

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I handled lots of flowers and leaves. Below are images of the hydrangeas I picked weekly to put on my windowsill, and a bundle of eucalyptus that I dried and brought home.

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I cared for a number of animals, including this donkey named Gina.

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In addition to these tasks, I hauled manure and wood, removed invasive plants from grazing lots, and worked on small construction projects. My days started at 6am and ended before 10pm. It was a quiet life filled with many hours outdoors, in both the sun and the rain. A life of Aloha.

cooking a whole chicken

A few months ago, when the decision to write this thing solidified, I asked Tuesday to send me a bunch of her food questions so I’d have a repository to choose from. Dependable gal that she is, Tuesday texted me a large number of inquiries and I immediately thought to myself, “I should categorize these! I should put them in a Google doc/spreadsheet/word document. I should put them anywhere other than in my text message history.” Did I do this? As you have probably already guessed, I did not. Time passed, conversations via text were had, and Tuesday’s lovely list of questions has vanished into the abyss where old text messages go. (Sorry, Tuesday. I know you’re just finding this out. I really do apologize and also can you send me all of your questions again — maybe via email this time?)

However, somewhat surprisingly — ask anyone; my memory is not very good — I can recall a number of items from the list and know that a significant chunk of them were about meat. And doesn’t that make so much sense? How many people do you know that can honest to goodness pick up a rolled rump roast or pork loin or rack of lamb and prepare a meal using that thing without having to google “how to cook a rolled rump roast or pork loin or rack of lamb” and spend more time reading about how to cook it than actually cooking it? Personally, I don’t know many of those people. I myself am not one of those people. But I’m working on it, and today, Tuesday, you’re going to work on it too.

So let’s talk about chicken. Here’s my personal history with chicken: Growing up, the main chicken forms that graced my plate were what I now like to call BSCBs — boneless, skinless chicken breasts. I don’t think this is unusual; BSCBs are a thing that a lot of people eat. They are easy to deal with, they are quick, and so long as you don’t turn them into hockey pucks by overcooking, whatever. Fast-forward to high school and I became an adamant vegetarian. No meat, no thank you. That period lasted for between three and five years (see? not such a good memory) and then I moved away from that diet and shortly after onto a farm where I was helping to raise livestock — chickens included — through methods I felt good about and decided it would be ok to start eating meat again. But this time, I was curious. I wanted to become the person that can cook all of the things without spending three hours on the internet beforehand. I started with a whole chicken. I suggest this is where everyone starts because it is crazy easy and cheap and if you feel ok with eating a chicken, you will feel empowered. (Note: Hello, vegetarian friends! I see you there! You are probably not feeling empowered right now. Sorry about that, but I really want to help Tuesday to cook a chicken. Thank you for reading along (or maybe you aren’t still reading this particular post, and that’s ok too) and know that my next recipe will have a very special gift just for you.)

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So, let’s get things in pecking order. (See what I did there?)

1. Buy a whole chicken that weighs between 4 and 6 pounds. Buy it at a farmers market or local grocery where you can get a beautiful, healthy, and happy chicken sans-antibiotics, hormones, and other gross stuff from an actual farmer while also helping small business and the local economy. Quadruple win! (If you are not yet convinced about buying the type of chicken I recommend, read THIS for further persuasion from a different angle.)

2. Get out your crock pot. If you don’t yet have a crock pot, get a crock pot; trust me. Fill said crock pot halfway with water and turn on high. Let the water warm for 30 minutes. Put your chicken in the water. Your chicken may be thawed or frozen — does not matter. I almost always cook my chicken from a frozen state because I buy my chickens from a frozen state and don’t plan far enough ahead to let them thaw before cooking. Either way is fine. One thing to remember here though is to check if your chicken still has it’s organs, which are called giblets. They may be wrapped in paper or plastic or may be free-floating. If they’re free-floating, you can leave them alone (unless you want to cook with them — then take them out), but if they’re wrapped in paper or plastic, you’ll want to remove them. Since I cook my chicken from a frozen state, I leave the chicken in the hot water for approximately an hour and then return to it and pull out the bag of organs once the chicken is less of an ice block.

3. Cook the chicken. On high for approximately six hours, or on low for eight+ hours. Personally, I often put the chicken in the crock pot right before going to bed and leave it overnight to deal with in the morning. However you choose to cook it, you’ll know it’s done when an inserted meat thermometer reads 165F.

4. Remove the chicken. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is with a pair of tongs. It will be hot, and probably break apart as you’re moving it from crock pot to bowl. Allow the chicken to cool for at least 30 minutes.

5. Pull apart the chicken. Get out one or two additional bowls. You’ll need a bowl for the chicken you’ll keep, and a bowl for bones/skin/etc. I often use the bowl I cooled my chicken in as the bones/skin/etc. bowl, but when new to this, a second bowl is really helpful. A few moments of trepidation may pass as you’re deciding where to start, but just pick up a piece of chicken and do the thing. Usable meat in one bowl, bones/skin/etc. in the other. This is definitely the trickiest part of cooking a whole chicken, but will get infinitely easier the more times you do it.

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6. Make things with your chicken. Some of the things I often make are tacos, stir fry, casserole, pasta, salad, soup, and one of my favorites, which I’ll be sharing a recipe for next week, pot pies.

7. Speaking of soup, one of the awesome extra bonuses of cooking a whole chicken is that you also get a bunch of junk-free and salt-free stock that is so great to use in many other recipes. So, strain the liquid remaining in the crock pot. I do this over the sink into a large liquid measuring cup, but a large bowl would work too. Store in jars or another container and freeze until you’re ready to use it.

8. Additional pro-tip for reduced waste and extra savings: Keep the chicken bones/skin/etc. in a bag in the freezer along with scraps from carrots, celery, and onions that you use in cooking other meals. Make another batch of stock by adding the frozen chicken bones/skin/etc. and the frozen vegetables into your trusty crock pot filled with water. Cook on high for six-ish hours and strain.

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For more info, check out this post I used as a guide when cooking my first chicken.

hawaii volcanoes national park

One of my favorite spots I visited on the Big Island was Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. At the same time desolate and lush, it was a place unlike any other I’ve laid eyes on. Only a short walk separated tree-filled rain forests from vast rocky expanses. The air is thin and wispy and filled with steam; heavily-scented with earth and sulfur. The impact of volcanic activity is obvious all around the island — from its craggy beaches to the swirling prints of lava left on walking paths — but nowhere is it more apparent than in this home of the craters.

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baked sweet potatoes, spinach and mushroom filling

A month ago, I was sitting on a bus to Pearl Harbor and Tuesday sent me the following text message regarding the items in her produce delivery bin: “Mushrooms lemons limes sweet potatoes spinach and green pepper this week IDEAS?”

After verifying potato size, the first thought that came to mind was a baked sweet potato with vegetable filling. (Novel? No. Really tasty and inexpensive? Yes.) Sweet potatoes are a perfect vehicle for eating other foods — chili, spicy chickpea stew, caramelized onions with greens and a runny egg on top — and one that you can feel virtuous about. I assert to you that this recipe should be added to the above list of excellent sweet potato passengers; even my very picky mother and sister agree.

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ingredients:

  • 4 baking-sized sweet potatoes
  • 4 handfuls of spinach (kale, collards, chard, or other greens would work well, too)
  • 2 c. mushrooms (I used shitakes, but portabellas, buttons, or others would be equally delicious)
  • 1 yellow onion
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 3 tbsp butter (or olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, other oil that you like)
  • 2/3 c. heavy whipping cream (milk or the unflavored dairy-alternative of your choice would also work)
  • fresh ground salt and pepper, to taste

directions:

Heat oven to 400F and place sweet potatoes on a baking dish in the oven. Bake for 50 minutes. (Alternative if you don’t mind using a microwave and are trying to get dinner on the table quickly: Stab the potato several times with a fork and wrap in a wet cloth or paper towel. Microwave for 5 minutes.)

Heat butter in a sauté pan or dutch oven over medium heat. Dice onion and mince garlic; add to pan and cook until onions become translucent. Wash and slice mushrooms and add to pan. Allow mushrooms to soften for 10-15 minutes. Add spinach and cover. Stir intermittently every few minutes so the spinach wilts evenly. When the vegetables are fully combined and the spinach is wilted, add cream or milk. Add freshly ground salt and pepper to taste, and give several minutes for the mixture to simmer and thicken. If you used milk/a milk alternative, you might want to add a tbsp. of flour or cornstarch to help the liquid thicken.

Serve overtop baked sweet potato and dig in, or first garnish with one or a combination of these possibilities — the zest of a lemon, some grated parmesan, chopped and toasted pecans.

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When I offer recipe suggestions to Tuesday, I try to keep the ingredient list pretty flexible. No need to be running to the store on a weeknight to pick up a special kind of salt or an additional vegetable. One should feel liberated to swap out a disliked or unavailable ingredient to make the recipe work for the cook’s tastes. Feel free to ask about substitutions or omissions in a comment.

on being alone

20151209_133241Last summer, I decided I wanted to spend the fall in Hawaii working on a farm. I’d never thought much about Hawaii previous to this realization; I just knew I wanted to be somewhere warm where plants would be growing in December. It was surprisingly easy to find a farm and my travel plans were quickly set.

Very intentionally, I decided to take this trip alone. (Though even if I would have wanted a companion it would have been difficult to arrange — it turns out not so many people can/want to take a three month break from their life to move to a farm in Hawaii.) This was supposed to be an opportunity for me to be with myself. I wanted to spend my days in the garden. Reading and writing. Thinking. I wanted the space.

Upon arriving in Hawaii, I had a very sudden change of heart about this whole ‘solo’ thing. Though I thought I was prepared to be by myself, the level of alone-ness that greeted me was far greater than I’d anticipated. I was the only worker on the farm.I was living in a barn in the middle of a field with a horse as a next-door neighbor. The nearest town was more than ten miles away and my transportation was limited. I was very literally by myself 85 – 90% of the time and I needed to figure out how to deal with that.

It’s such a funny thing in life when you get exactly what you’ve asked for and then have no idea what to do with it. I’d thought at length about the free time this experience would grant me and how I’d spend it. I’d considered and re-considered the duration of my stay with great attention, determining three months would give me enough time to accomplish everything I wanted to. I had personally and solely planned and put together every bit of this trip, and now, on day two, I wanted out. I looked at one-way flights home for the next week. I used my phone’s limited data plan to search such entries  as, “i have three months off of work what do i do with it”; “how to fill time by yourself”; “what to do when you are lonely”. I then indulged in a large dose of pouting and wallowing and feeling generally very sorry for myself and went to bed before 8pm.

The next day, I decided that I had to get it together. I still wasn’t thrilled about this whole arrangement, but I’d yearned for this trip, so I was going to make something of it despite the unexpected circumstances. Naturally, I wrote a list. On that list was every single thing that I could think of that I might be able to do during a day. There was also a list for what I could do once the sun had gone down. The lists contained such items as: “go look at plants and locate them in an ID book and find out what they are and how they work”, “make a cup of tea and read”, “play with the dog”, “make jam”, and “work on crossword puzzles”. I wrote a note at the end that read, “The action is here.”

A few days passed. Being by myself continued to feel really hard. I looked again at tickets to fly home. I slept too frequently. I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed and felt an unfounded resonance at the thought of being trapped in the woods.

And then gradually — so gradually that I didn’t notice it happening — everything was ok. I was still alone, but I didn’t feel lonely. I would look forward to waking up early to watch the sunrise out of my east-facing window. I cooked nice meals for one. I journaled about my day instead of talking about it. I went on a lot of walks. The time passed, and I felt myself learning and expanding. The reasons I went on the trip in the first place were making themselves known.

Not every day was easy. There were still many many times when I wanted nothing more than to transport myself out of my often uncomfortable circumstances and into a bustling cafe for a coffee with a friend. But by day 90, as I was preparing to leave the farm at my pre-determined date, I felt a distinct sense of nostalgia creeping in; I knew before I’d even stepped foot off of the island that in so many ways, I’d dearly miss the small and solitary world I’d built for myself.

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cranberry walnut muffins

Several months ago, Tuesday was invited to a work brunch. She wanted to bring along something crowd-pleasing, easy to make, and most importantly, delicious. She asked if I had any ideas for a muffin recipe. Yes, I did!

This recipe comes from the owner of a farm where I worked during college. It can be easily altered to meet a variety of needs — gluten-free, reduced sugar, pick-the-berry-of-your-choice, add nuts, etc. I bake these muffins quite a lot, and I usually add a heaping cup of mixed berries in place of the blueberries from the original recipe as well as a half cup of chopped hazelnuts. Also, instead of a crumb topping, I make a “sugary-y butter-y topping” that is less crumb and more goo. (That version, baked last summer, is pictured, somewhat poorly, below.) However, since cranberries are making their last stand in grocery stores and farmers markets (if you’re lucky!), I decided to experiment with those instead.

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I made these muffins on Sunday and was it ever the perfect day for standing near the oven. Here’s an image of a small forested area in my neighborhood from that afternoon.

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muffin batter ingredients:

  • 1 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 c. whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 c. brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 c. milk
  • 1/3 c. canola oil
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 c. cranberries
  • 1/2 c. walnuts

sugar-y butter-y topping ingredients:

  • 1/3 c. turbinado sugar
  • 1/4 c. whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 c. butter

directions:

Heat oven to 400F and grease a muffin tin. Mix the dry ingredients (both flours, brown sugar, salt, baking powder) together in a bowl. In a second bowl, mix together the wet ingredients (egg, milk, oil.) Gently stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients to combine. Using a grater or (preferably) a microplane, zest the lemon directly into the mixing bowl. Cut and juice the lemon and add the juice to the bowl. Mix. Coarsely chop cranberries and toss with flour to prevent bleeding into the batter. Coarsely chop walnuts. Add both the cranberries and walnuts to the batter and mix gently with a rubber spatula to combine. Fill muffin tin with batter.

In a separate bowl, combine sugar, whole wheat flour, and softened butter. Work ingredients together with hands until a smooth butter-sugar glob forms. Put a spoonful of the mixture into the center of each of the muffins. Bake for 22-25 mins. Check for done-ness with a knife or toothpick; the muffins are fully baked when the knife/toothpick comes out clean.

Yields 12 muffins. I am strange and like my muffins huge and exploding out of the tin, so I bake six instead of 12 with the same quantity of batter.

There are numerous appropriate methods to eat a muffin. On its own with a cup of tea or coffee is a pretty standard choice. My favorite method, however, is to eat these muffins for breakfast smashed into a bowl of yogurt with extra nuts on top. Enjoy!

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first week of 2016

The past week has been filled with many of my favorite things: Time spent with infrequently seen friends, days packed with hiking, exploring, reading, hours driving through beautiful countryside with my favorite co-pilot listening to CSNY’s greatest hits on repeat (2,400+ miles, 9 states + D.C.) I am thankful.

Here are some snapshots from our Midwest —> East Coast (and back) adventure. Next week I’m going to start this thing in earnest with a recipe for Tuesday on Tuesday and another post on Friday. Cheers to 2016!

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