When I opened my mailbox today and saw the Johnny's Seed Catalogue, I shrieked, ran inside, promptly posted up at our kitchen table and poured over the brightly colored pages that list and oh-so-poetically describe every kind of seed under the sun. Although the days keep getting shorter and colder, farmers are already digging into their seed catalogues and dreaming + scheming for the next growing season and let me just say: IT IS SO EXCITING.
Want to know what else is exciting? Today we get to continue the Eat Like a Farmer series with an interview with Aaren Nuñez, of Well Fed Farm in beautiful Southwest Virginia. Aaren raises rare heritage breed livestock, is an avid home gardener, not to mention she's one heck of a cook and master canner, butcher, forager, milker and butter-churner. This interview is full of farmhouse kitchen wisdom, and Aaren honestly captures the hustle-bustling every day life as a farmer - all the joy and the chaos, the early mornings, ever present animal chores, endless to do lists, and all the buttery-crusty-garlicky-slow-braised deliciousness that comes along with.
Big thanks and high fives to Aaren for sharing her heart on what it means to eat like a farmer, and reminding us that the key to simple, delicious + nourishing meals often means starting with the highest quality ingredients possible. Be sure to give Aaren a follow on Instagram (@wellfedfarm) where she shares puddle wonderful + mud luscious snapshots of her farm and delicious kitchen creations.
Where is your farm located and what to you produce? Our farm is located atop a high plateau in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia in a town called Floyd. We’ve got just one stop light in the whole county and a diverse community of folks committed to taking care of this place we all love and call home. Well Fed Farm’s focus is stewarding rare heritage breed livestock. We have a growing herd of Dutch Belted Cattle, a dairy breed whose status is currently listed as Critical by The Livestock Conservancy. While they produce fantastic milk from grass alone, the breed is considered dual purpose and the beef is also excellent. We are also usually raising up a small number of hogs and offer non-gmo, pasture raised heritage breed pork, as well as having eggs available in the warmer months, and some years we raise meat birds. The farm is a work in progress and tweaks and changes are always being made to see what works and what doesn’t. While I also grow a large kitchen garden, most of it is just for us (these past few years) or for barter with friends.
Walk us through a typical day on your farm and in your kitchen. A weekday sees us up around 6:30 am. I am not a morning person and becoming a farmer did not magically turn me into one. So it’s pour over coffee with creamy milk while I restart a fire in woodstove, and whip up breakfast and lunches for my two boys before school. Normally breakfast for them is simple: nut butter on homemade sourdough toast or a scrambled cheese + egg burrito with a glass of milk of course. There is not normally a lot of extra time in the mornings before the bus comes and we are always in a bit of a rush! My partner is an engineer and works an hour away so once he loads up the boys and drops them at the top of the driveway heading off for the day I am usually then alone on the farm to knock things off my lists. I keep massive ongoing To Do lists. They keep me sane because the things I single handedly need to get done seem never ending. I’ll clean up the kitchen and perhaps start a chicken simmering on the back of the stove, or make pie dough, or stick something in the oven to roast for later and then bundle up and head out for morning chores. Currently I am milking just one cow and I head down to the lower cattle barn first where there is mucking and watering and rotating the cattle pasture to a bit more stockpiled grass to be done along with the milking, and then it’s back inside to strain milk. I then head back out to feed and water everybody else: the dogs, the cats, chickens/ guineas/ ducks, and the hogs. Animal chores are non-negotiable. (Even when I am sick and can barely move, they get done.) After everybody has been taken care of I then usually get around to eating something myself. I am a big fan of the breakfast salad a mix of greens with crispy sweet potatoes, bacon, quick pickled red onion, an over easy egg, a maple syrup vinaigrette and hot sauce… The rest of the day until evening chores depends on the season, the current emergency (there always tends to be some wild card thing that comes up) and the to do list. Right now my garden is mostly dormant, my larder is full of canned veg, jams, and pickles from earlier in the season, and I am focusing on cleaning out my basement! There is also making elderberry honey from the berries I picked earlier in the season and stashed in the deep freeze, and finishing off my fire cider to be done in the next day or two along with making some butter. Dinners are slowly built in steps through out the day as I am in and out of the farmhouse kitchen, or are the complete opposite and are thrown together at the last moment using what I have on hand and making it up as I go. Both ways of cooking make me happy.
What is your favorite fruit or vegetable grow, and what's your go-to method to cook it? For folks who are gardening and growing mainly for themselves (as I am currently doing) I am a big believer in growing what one uses a ton of and/or is expensive to purchase. So I grow a lot of garlic, a crazy amount of tomatoes to can and put by in all imaginable ways, I love fennel so grow a bunch of that, fava beans, storage onions, peppers, sweet potatoes… I am currently enamored with these palm sized Butternut winter squash called Honeynut. I did not grow any myself this year, but will next! I cut them in half (tip to tail) pop out seeds with a spoon, a drizzle of olive oil and salt and turn them over with a sage leaf underneath the cavity on a parchment lined baking sheet. Hot oven (400-425F) for only about twenty or so minutes or until the flesh is tender. I flip them over then (skin side down) and add a bit of butter to the center and tuck back in the sage leaf. I eat them as part of a larger meal as a side as is, or layer them up with other things: black beans, jalapenos, yogurt, over easy egg, some pickled onion and turmeric…
What kitchen tools could you not live without? A good sharp knife, a substantial wooden cutting board, a microplane rasp, a well seasoned cast iron skillet, an quality instant read thermometer (for making cheese and that perfect roast), a digital kitchen scale (weighing out homemade butter and lard for baking etc.), a stack of stainless steel mixing bowls, and several good whisks.
Name the top three ingredients used most in your kitchen that don't come from your farm. I would go with lemons/limes, good olive oil, and Himalayan (Pink) salt (which I purchase in 25 pound bags and store in the basement.) I am going to add a fourth ingredient, a big chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Favorite cookbook? I have shelves and shelves of cookbooks. I admit I might be a bit of a hoarder when it comes to them! I have a thing for very old ones because they usually have quite vast sections on putting food by or getting big returns from humble ingredients. I tend to pull books from my shelves and accumulate a little stack depending on what I might be doing in the farmhouse kitchen at the moment. Since I cannot choose a favorite (Horrors! Just one?) I will list several I have floating around at the moment, some old and some new: “A Recipe for Cooking” by Cal Peternell (I want to cook and eat everything in this book right now.) “The Essential Cuisines of Mexico” by Dianna Kennedy (Want to make your own tortillas or get geared up to make tamales to gift for the holiday season? She’s got you covered here.) MFK Fisher’s “How to Cook a Wolf” (Just because I enjoy it so and every few years re-read…great wit and thrift here.) “The Zuni Café Cookbook” by Judy Rodgers (A classic and THE BEST roast chicken ever. Once you learn to pre-salt you’ll never do it any other way, I promise.) “Bar Tartine Techniques & Recipes” by Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns (So many good things here.) “Roast Figs Sugar Snow” by Diana Henry (Seasonal cold weather food and you can’t go wrong with anything by this woman.) Hamilton & Hirsheimer’s “Canal House Cooks Everyday” (In a rut? Flip through this. It is beautiful and organized by season). “The River Cottage Meat Book” by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Want to do justice to every last bit of the beast while learning about humanely raised pastured animals? Check! For the record, anything River Cottage is a win).
Do you have go-to methods for preserving your harvests through the year (ie jamming, pickling, freezing)? My advice is to keep a notebook that you yearly record exactly what you do when it comes to putting food by; the book, the recipe, the date, the produce variety, changes you made on the fly… A year or so out you’ll be hard pressed to remember exactly what you did in that excellent jar of bread and butter pickles everyone is raving about. I learned this the hard way. Take relentless notes and after a few years you’ll figure out what jams/ pickles/ sauces get used and loved (and made again) vs. what’s a disaster and/ or untouched and eventually only got fed to the pigs. Here’s a tip: I am a huge fan of freezing bags of berries and stone fruits for smoothies throughout the year. The best way to do this so they do not all clump together (sliced peaches!!) is to lay them out on a parchment covered baking tray and freeze them un-touching first then transfer them into bags. A chest freezer is invaluable for this technique. We have four freezers at the farm so I do like to have frozen goodies, as well as, dehydrated, and canned goods available.
What advice do you give folks for cooking with the good from your farm, especially when using ingredients they may not be familiar with? The internet is an amazing thing, I tell folks to research for ideas that interest them, but to ultimately keep it simple. I know we have all heard it, but when you start with high quality veg or protein you really just want to let it shine. I’ll normally rattle off a couple of suggestions for folks with questions and I feel like a lot of times I am saying for larger cuts of meat, “salt it, sear it in some good fat, roast low and slow, tightly covered, with some wine and crushed garlic till falling off the bone tender” I love the earthy, unctuous quality of a braise using a hard working muscle. Plus I am a huge fan of tacos. Braised meat and a fresh corn tortilla…Now that is my kind of happiness.
How has running a farm influenced your relationships with family, friends, and your local community? Haha, this is a loaded question for me. My ex-husband and I started this farm together after our second son was born three and a half months premature. For us it was about the best possible nutrient dense foods for his and our health, it then grew to supplying friends and others with the same. We took on a lot straight out of the gate and it was a steep learning curve. We now jokingly call those hog breeders and feeders of the early days “marriage killers”. Truly though, I have cultivated some incredible friendships with all different types of folks who were raised in this type of lifestyle or came to it later, like me. It’s a passionate group of people who push on planting seeds and pulling calves no matter what life is choosing to throw at them. There is also an incredible amount of lending a helping hand when you’ve got one to lend, for that I am so grateful and it is just one of the many reasons I find it so damn wonderful out here in our small, rural community.
Please share a favorite recipe for a simple, straight from the farm dish that you are craving this fall/winter. Well this last week in November signals hog harvesting days. I am craving spicy, plump pork sausage links with scratch made mustard and lacto-fermented sauerkraut! Method as follows: Take fresh links or spiral of sausage and place in a cast iron pan, give a good slug of olive oil, add a couple of onion wedges and a pinch of salt if desired. Add water or a mixture of beer & water to just cover sausages. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to let it roll along at a lively simmer. You want all the liquid to cook down and off. When this does happen keep a close eyes on sausages and start flipping them around gently so they can get browned on all sides. Serve with mustard, the cooked down onions if using, and crispy cold sauerkraut. Also delicious along with day old bread crisped in olive oil, garlicky kale, those baked honeynut winter squash mentioned earlier, or creamy parmesan corn grits.