The New Farm Cook
by Leslie Cole
reprinted with permission from The Oregonian
Tuesday, October 18, 2005 Edition: Sunrise, Section: FoodDay, Page FD01
Used to be that farm cooking meant an eggs-and-bacon breakfast cooked by the wife before dawn, followed up with a meat-and-potatoes lunch and a hefty slice of pie. The archetypal farm wife was an accomplished cook who did simple, stick-to-your-ribs home cooking, fuel for the men who toiled 15-hour days in the fields.
Today, everyone cooks and eats differently from a generation ago, including farmers.
Wife, husband or both often work jobs off the farm to make ends meet, so time is precious. And the farm cook could be wife, husband, both or neither.
Even palates have changed, with farmers who sell to food-savvy urbanites becoming ever more sophisticated about what they eat. And today’s small farmer is just as likely to be an urban escapee as someone born with soil in his blood.
So we went back to the farm to take a peek in the kitchen.
Here’s how a handful of Oregon farmers cook and eat today.
PHILOMATH — John Eveland is in a hurry. It’s 11:15 in the kitchen at Gathering Together Farm, he’s expecting 30 hungry guests for lunch and he can’t find the olive oil to roast his beloved cipollini onions. “Grease! Grease! Where’s the olive oil?” he mutters to no one in particular, rifling through a pile under the prep sink.
It’s Monday, and that means Eveland, a tall man in shorts and baseball cap, is in the farm’s commercial kitchen, cooking the midday meal for his crew. He’s rushing to beat a 1 o’clock deadline, when the men and women who keep his 50-acre organic farm humming through the height of harvest season will stop picking salad greens long enough to fill their bellies in a shady spot behind the packing shed.
“These guys, they eat,” he says of his field crew, a hardworking bunch in their 20s and 30s, many from the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
Lucky for Eveland, he has plenty of ingredients at his fingertips, gleaned from a patchwork quilt of farm fields hugging Mary’s River, a few stoplights from Corvallis.
But piles of peppers and potatoes out his back door don’t make it any easier for a farmer to find time to cook.
He began this golden September day by welding an aging loader, checking temperatures in his sand-dune-sized compost piles and picking up straw at the feed store. In between, he fielded “a ton of phone calls” and dashed to the market for heavy cream. After lunch, he has a date with the silage chopper in a cornfield.
But for now, it’s all about those onions. “I’ve fallen in love with these this year,” he says of the cipollinis, squat and sweet and fetching $3.50 per pound at farmers markets. “But they’re a pain in the rear to work on.” A flash of the cleaver over a cutting board and they’re diced, doused with olive oil and ready to roast.
Farm lunch started 15 years ago in the house he shares with his wife and farming partner, Sally Brewer, and Haylee, 12, the youngest of their three daughters. (The older two also work on the farm: Amelia, 22, sells produce at Portland Farmers Market; Carly, 25, cooks at their Corvallis restaurant, Nearly Normal’s.)
Now, with 40 different crops, trucks traveling to seven farmers markets, deliveries to restaurants and wholesalers and a farm cafe, not to mention a new seed business, husband and wife are busier than ever. But the three-day-a-week lunch tradition isn’t going away, Eveland says.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of keeping the farm going, in terms of dollars and cents, and time. But (the workers) give a lot to us, and so we give something back to them.”
On Monday, Eveland’s regular cooking day, lunch is pasta with heirloom onions and greens, lots of creamy feta and fresh basil — a far cry from the meat-and-potatoes lunches his mom used to serve work crews on the family’s Iowa corn and soybean farm. But the point is the same: bringing people together over food.
Philomath became home for Eveland in the late 1970s. The couple met when Brewer was a graduate student, and jumped into farming when Nearly Normal’s, which Eveland opened in 1980, couldn’t get decent produce.
“The tomatoes were horrible,” remembers Eveland, who cooked there for a dozen years. So they planted some and launched a small farm with five other partners. “They all disappeared real quick,” he laughs. “Sally and I just kept going.”
Growing good food is still the point, he says.
For farm lunch, he dreams up the menu as he goes, setting his favorite greens — radish tops and kale — to sizzling on the stove, stirring roasting onions with bare hands and fishing around for enough pasta for the crowd. Today it will be penne, foraged from three partially finished bags.
Farmhand Mark Bassik arrives with a basket of Sungold and Isis Candy cherry tomatoes. They’re still warm from the sun and gorgeous against the deep-green kale. At 10 minutes past 1 p.m., Eveland drains the pasta and dumps everything else into the pot, just as Brewer wanders in to check on things.
Minutes later the crew is out back, in boots, sleeveless T-shirts and jeans, ladling penne from the pot, piling salad greens in a heap over it all. They sit together in the shade, quietly chatting and eating.
When everyone has his fill, Eveland makes a plate for himself and joins Brewer and farm manager Rodrigo Medina-Garcia, 36, at the table to make plans for the week. Do they have enough turnips and shallots for the co-op? If it rains on Thursday, should they cut the squash? Is there enough sweet corn for the week?
Yes, maybe. But for a moment, the decisions can wait.
People are eating.
AMITY — Somewhere between moving chicken fences, washing dozens of eggs in her downstairs bathtub and wielding a chainsaw from the top of a cherry tree, Chenin Carlton finds time to eat.
And she eats well, because there’s no other choice. Good food is always right under her nose — she makes sure of it. And cooking is her sanity break from the endless chores on her sloping five acres in the Eola Hills.
“Sometimes I say to myself, I could fix this chicken coop, or I could cook,” says Carlton, 36. “And next thing I know, time management is out the window.”
Like this morning, when, after moving her 200 laying hens to a fresh spot of grass in the orchard, she returned to her “funky farmhouse” with a view of three Cascade peaks to roast carrots, stew two chickens and make aioli for an upmarket version of one of her favorite snacks, deviled eggs. By afternoon, lavender-laced pastry dough rests on the counter, waiting to be filled with plums for a rustic tart.
Food is not always this fancy on Cherry Blossom Farm, but cooking is inseparable from the rural life she and her husband, Sean, have made on a hilltop in Amity, where they grow cherries and lavender, and raise chickens for eggs.
Most days, meals are on the fly, food is fast and improvised. Breakfast, sneaked in before a pre-dawn drive to the Portland Farmers Market, might be a fried egg sandwich on bread she made in their bread maker, smeared with some goat cheese.
But when there’s time, when Sean isn’t traveling for his wine sales job and when friends stop by for a game of bocce (they built a court off their back deck) and a bottle of their home-brewed IPA, the couple will be cooking.
“I try to plan,” says Carlton, wearing flip-flops and slim ankle-length black pants, “but it never works out.”
So she focuses on what she has: stockpiles of great ingredients, a great palate and instincts honed from a lifetime of good eating.
Her freezer bulges with berry purees, fresh Oregon corn sliced off the cob and logs of chevre. Frozen cubes of her favorite chewy bread stand at the ready, waiting for a time when she can toss them with tomato hunks, Walla Walla onions and fresh basil from her garden for a quick panzanella.
Chenin — named for grapes her parents planted in their Temecula, Calif., vineyard before their only daughter was born — embraced farm life in Oregon three years ago, after the couple moved north from winery jobs in Napa Valley.
The idea was to plant wine grapes on Cherry Blossom Lane when they found their piece of paradise, but neither one of them could stand to tear out the cherry trees. With the cherries, which they sell at two farmers markets, came cherry jam, then cherry syrup, sold under the Cherry Blossom Farms label.
Now there are eggs to collect as well, for a weekly delivery route, and two cows, a lamb and 70 lavender plants that vie for her attention.
So while Sean works a day job at Archery Summit Winery, Chenin tends the farm.
Part of that is making sure her kitchen is well-stocked for winter.
On this September day, a food dehydrator hums on the front porch, drying tomatoes to throw into winter pastas (she tosses them into the boiling water with the noodles just as they’re nearly cooked).
Lamb and beef from animals she raised is in the freezer, along with hunks of gruyere in case she “gets a bug” for fondue.
But her favorite flavors are right in front of her: lavender, eggs and her goto ingredients: cherry jam and syrup. She uses them to flavor stews in the slow cooker, glaze pan-roasted carrots and brush onto seared lamb chops just before serving.
The jam makes the simplest appetizer for an impromptu party: smear a baguette slice with goat cheese, dab on some jam and top with a rosemary sprig or borage flower.
Lavender and lamb is a natural, says Carlton, who first tasted it as a 15- year-old exchange student in France. She likes to sear chops with sprigs of it, or brush on some lavender-cherry jam just before pulling them out of the pan.
A handful of dried lavender blossoms goes into tubs of flour and sugar in her pantry, so its perfume can permeate pie crusts and butter cookies.
Eggs get the retro-gourmet treatment: They’re deviled, but the cooked yolks are mixed with aioli and homemade mustard spiked with cumin and cherry syrup.
“It’s one of those childhood things I grew up with,” Carlton says. “Last winter I felt like I was making them every two weeks to take to parties.”
For the couple’s stay-at-home date night two weeks ago, it was a home-cooked lamb roast from an animal she and Sean raised, braised with dried tomatoes, dried cherries and vegetables from her garden.
The improvised meal was that much more satisfying, she says, knowing it all came from home.
There was only one problem with the dish.
“I’m trying to figure out,” Carlton says, “how I can re-create it.”
McMINNVILLE — When Barbara Boyer wants jewels, she heads to her garden and takes her pick.
Heirloom bush beans pop out of plump pods, pretty as black opals and rubies. Purple pole beans drip from sturdy, 5-foot vines like earrings. Even cabbage, dappled with diamond-like beads of dew, stops the 38-year-old farm wife in her tracks. “Isn’t that gorgeous?” says Boyer, a dark-haired woman wearing torn jeans and a sparkling smile.
But these vegetables, grown on a fertile, acre-plus patch of earth a mile south of McMinnville, are never so treasured as when they come into the kitchen.
Between Boyer’s garden and her freezer packed with meat raised by a friend, she and husband Tom, a fourth-generation Oregon hay farmer, eat well, with plenty to spare.
“When we’re broke on the farm — which is a lot — I can go to the freezer and pull out a T-bone or pork loin, and I feel like a queen.”
And she shares their riches with the guests who show up most days to join the couple at their butter-yellow ranch house for a meal.
A confirmed city girl until she met Tom 12 years ago and moved to this 400-acre farm, Boyer cooks the way farm wives have for centuries, making three square meals a day using what the land around her provides.
Her year-round garden feeds five families plus her own, on vegetables and berries she taste-tests before putting in the ground. She trades oats and straw for fresh eggs, and buys turkeys from a small farm in Amity.
And no matter what she makes, eating doesn’t seem quite right unless there’s a crowd.
Often there is, from spontaneous dinners for eight in their comfortably cluttered home to sprawling outdoor parties timed for cider pressing. Their annual Hog Fest is a two-day affair, complete with a river float through the couple’s property.
“Tom, he still is shy, but I’ve forced it upon him,” jokes Boyer, one of 12 children from a well-to-do Connecticut family.
The way she looks at it, cooking and entertaining, for a few or a dozen, is the reward for 15-hour days spent weeding, wrestling 80-pound bales of hay on and off a truck, picking and delivering her garden-grown vegetables to a handful of customers, and helping run the McMinnville Farmers Market and the booth that sells the Boyers’ “gourmet hay.”
“Our motto is work hard, play hard,” Boyer says.
And the meal is whatever her sunrise scout around the garden suggests.
In late summer, she’s digging Walla Walla onions by the thousands and making onion pie. If cucumbers look good and there’s a chill in the air, she’ll simmer them into hot lemon-cucumber soup, a riff on the Greek dish avgolemono.
Often she’s thinking, and cooking, ahead.
When the basil’s tender and fragrant she makes pesto by the pound, calling girlfriends over to help her stock her freezer and to drink sparkling wine. In tomato season, she’s freezing the heart-shaped paste varieties whole; in winter she simmers them down, plucks out the skin and core and turns them into the simplest sauce, she says, that will bring you to your knees.
On an early fall walk in the garden, her voice drops to a whisper when she comes to her favorites. Tuscan kale? The best thing on the planet in winter, in soup or over pasta. Celeriac? Looks ugly, but it’s fantastic when simmered and mashed with potatoes.
But the place she calls her “spiritual space” will get no bigger, she says. It’s as much as she can manage.
“I don’t want help out here. It’s my child. I pick. I deliver. This is my domain.”
As for the Boyers’ table?
There’s always plenty of room.