February is nearly behind us (already?!), which in the world of farming means that as the days get longer, so do the to-do lists. There are meticulously planned excel planting spreadsheets to track, beds to prep, greenhouses to fill, engines to crank back up, irrigation lines to set out, weeds to tackle, CSA shares to sell, and calluses to build back to their autumnal toughness.
Amid the spring hustle-bustle, I'm continually humbled by this young farm community, which is so willing to share + learn from each other. Today I'm thrilled to share an awesome Eat like a Farmer interview with two farmers we could all learn a lot from - Beth and Erik of Even Pull Farm. Based in the beautiful Yamhill Valley in Western Oregon, Beth and Erik are first generation farmers growing a diverse bounty of vegetables and cut flowers via their robust CSA program, farmers markets, and restaurant sales. Just a warning - if you aren't hungry yet, you will be by the end of this interview, as we cover all kinds of kitchen wisdom - from the art of slow cooking cabbage to caramelized perfection - to hints about using salt, acid, olive oil to heighten flavor - to a kickbutt chicory salad recipe and heaps more... dig in folks!
Where is your farm located and what to you grow? Our little farm is located on 3 acres just outside of McMinnville, Oregon. Our county, Yamhill County, is right in the heart of Willamette Valley wine country and is also a more traditional agricultural county growing tons of hazelnuts, grass seed, small grains, blueberries, and more. We grow mixed vegetables and cut flowers for our CSA program (year-round for veggies and seasonal for bouquets), plus a seasonal Farmers Market in McMinnville, and to more than a dozen restaurants around Yamhill County. We are very proud that everything we grow is sold within our small rural county, with a population of just over 100,000 people.
Walk us through a typical day on your farm and in your kitchen (ie what do you eat on a typical day)? I’m not sure there is such a thing as a typical day on the farm, just because it changes so much from season to season! Right now, in the winter, I will usually kick off the day with a big cup of coffee, breakfast (eggs, toast & greens with salsa and avocado, or alternately oatmeal with lots of seeds and nuts and maybe some frozen berries), and computer work. In January we spend a lot of time on the computer: updating our website, creating marketing materials for our CSA, doing our books and looking at financial projections, ordering supplies, crop planning… Then I will head to the farm and work on the tasks for that day: it might be harvest and delivery, seeding in the greenhouse, or infrastructure projects. In the winter, I head home (we don’t live on the farm) around 5 or as the light fades, and will maybe make a quick snack while I figure out my dinner plan. Dinner is the biggest meal of the day for us, and it’s where I like to get creative, use tons of veggies, and we sit down and eat together. My partner Erik works off of the farm four days a week, so we tend to eat late after we both get home & after I cook up a big meal from scratch. I am all about the veggies, and like to pack them in to recipes that aren’t traditionally veggie-centric, like pasta sauces, casseroles, soups, and so on. We also LOVE chicory salads in the winter, and make them at least a couple of times a week as long as we have lots of chicory!
In the main growing season (say early April - end of November), I typically will be up and running out to the farm first thing in the morning to vent our propagation house and then dig into the day’s work. This is the time of year where we set the coffee maker timer the night before, grab a quick piece of peanut butter toast and a smoothie, and then jet. Eating well in the main season is a real challenge for us. Because we don’t live on the farm, when we head out in the morning we have to bring everything we need with us. Some days I am lucky enough to have left overs to bring, or I’ll make a giant smoothie that I sip on throughout the day. There are a lot of Clif bars, cheese & crackers, and hummus. We do snack on lots of veggies (and strawberries!) as we’re out working, but real meals are tricky during the day. Early in the spring we usually get home early enough to tackle a good dinner, but in August we stop for take out burritos at 10pm on the way home way more often then I’d like to admit. Keeping ourselves in enough calories with all of the hard, physical labor of farming is a serious trick! It feels like a full time job, and it’s an ongoing joke between Erik and me that I am ALWAYS hungry. This season one of my biggest goals is to eat two square meals every day all season long. And we’re taking some big steps toward that, including our recent purchase of a little vintage trailer that will be parked at the farm. It has a full kitchen in it, plus a little dinette and even a spot for a futon so we can take naps! It’s going to be a huge improvement for our quality of life this summer, and I am so excited about it!
What is your favorite fruit or vegetable grow, and what's your go-to method to cook it? Gosh. Well, I honestly have to say that I love growing cabbage. The plants are beautiful, they grow well in our climate, and I think cabbages are such a wonderful and versatile vegetable. I know they aren’t sexy, not even as “sexy” as their close cousin kale, but I love them all the same! In winter my go-to method for cooking it is to make Smothered Cabbage Soup. Basically, you thinly slice a whole big head of cabbage, and one onion. Then you melt half a stick of butter in a heavy pot over medium heat (I love our cast iron dutch oven and use it all the time). Toss in your onion and a pinch of salt, and let them soften. Then slowly add your cabbage, stirring it down as it begins to wilt, until you fit the whole pile in there. Salt liberally again, add a tablespoon or two of a light vinegar (white wine, champagne, apple cider), lower the heat to medium-low, and let it cook away. It gets better the longer you cook it, and I usually let it go for an hour or two. The cabbage will get soft, and start to caramelize (you want to stir it occasionally so it won’t stick and burn), and become the most delicious thing ever! When it’s been cooking for at least an hour and is nicely caramelized, you want to add broth to cover the cabbage by about an inch, and a cup of Arborio rice. Let it simmer until the rice is fully cooked, and you have smothered cabbage soup! I serve it will a little grated parmesan and some sourdough toast. It’s the ultimate winter comfort food.
What kitchen tools could you not live without? I absolutely could not live without my 8” chefs knife (I have this one), and a huge wooden cutting board I inherited from a friend. They get used every single day! Buy a good knife and keep it sharp! If you cook with veggies regularly, this is the single tool you must have. I have a fleet of cast iron pans that I use for everything—skillets of different sizes mostly, and my beloved enameled cast iron dutch oven. I also have to admit that I love my food processor (my mom got me the biggest Cuisinart ever), which I use to make sauces and pestos, slice huge quantities of veggies for salads or pickling, and to blitz tomato sauce and salsa in canning season. It’s an amazing labor saver!
Name the top three ingredients used most in your kitchen that don't come from your farm. Top three would have to be butter, olive oil, and kosher salt. When you are cooking with a lot of veggies, good fats and salt are your best friends! They help bring out the flavor of our veggies, which is wonderful. I’ve eaten way too many bland veggies in my life: all they need to come to life is a sprinkle of salt and dash of fat! I use kosher salt, and keep it in a little bowl by my stove. Your fingers are the perfect tool for metering out salt carefully, and kosher salt is nice because it has larger flakes and is less “salty”. It can be easy to over-salt using fine table salt, but kosher salt is easier to work with and I almost never accidentally over-salt my food. I use olive oil constantly for roasting veggies, making vinaigrettes, and for drizzling on finished dishes. (Buy good stuff, not the cheap option because it is almost always rancid—I like California Olive Ranch, which is pretty widely available). I prefer using butter for sautéing, since it holds up to heat better, and there is no better smell in the world than an onion cooking in butter. Lately I also find myself reaching for vinegar often (red wine and white wine, sometimes balsamic), to balance dishes. Again, because lots of veggies have a strong inherent sweetness, adding a little acid will really brighten up your meals.
Favorite cookbook? I’m kind of a bad cookbook mother. I love them and do have a healthy sized collection, but I am a bad recipe follower. I mostly flip through them for inspiration! Seeing the flavor combinations and cooking methods folks use is always interesting and will give me an idea to start from. Favorite cookbook authors that come to mind include Nigel Slater (Tender is a must-read if you love veggies), Deborah Madison (Vegetable Literacy, also a must-read), and you MUST read An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. It’s kind-of a cookbook, but mostly a manifesto on living well in the kitchen. I return to it often.
Do you have go-to methods for preserving your harvests through the year (ie jamming, pickling, freezing)? We always make sure to can tomatoes—sauce, crushed tomatoes, salsa, and maybe paste or ketchup if we can get to it. Home-canned tomatoes are the best to crack open in the winter, and 100% put the ones from the store to shame. Before I farmed full time, I did a ton of other preserving: pickles, jams, and so on. Now, I pretty much stick to the basics: tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, salsa (tomato & tomatillo), pickled hot peppers, and maybe some dill slices if I can get to it. If we have extra strawberries after CSA and market I try to freeze them, I buy blueberries from a local biodynamic blueberry farm and freeze them, and I try to can or freeze a box or two of peaches for winter treats. I wish I canned more applesauce!
What advice do you give folks for cooking with your produce, especially when using ingredients they may not be familiar with? I always tell our CSA members: try it raw first. If you don’t like it, try it cooked (usually I recommend roasting). If you don’t know what a veggie is, and don’t actually know what it really tastes like, (or worse: think you know what it is and that you hate it) what’s the point? You may find that you love raw fennel! Or you may hate it raw, but love it after it’s been roasted in the oven and is all sweet and caramelized. You might find that you prefer broccoli raw in the fall because it is SO sweet in the cooler weather, but roast your spring broccoli. You might learn that veggies you wrote off are actually amazing when you buy them locally (I hated cauliflower before I started growing it myself). You may discover that cooking veggies nearly to death, like that smothered cabbage recipe, is amazing. You don’t know until you try. Taste as you cook, don’t be afraid to salt things, and stay open to the possibilities!
How has running a farm influenced your relationships with family, friends, and your local community? This is such a big question. We’ve only been farming for a few years (2017 will be our third season running our own operation), and in that short time it has totally flipped our life upside down. We feel like we are more of a part of our community than ever, because we’re out in it all the time—at farmers markets, making deliveries, chatting with CSA members at pick up, getting involved with events—but at the same time, we struggle with the shrinking amount of time we have to spend with our most intimate community, our friends and family. I think this is just something we have to work out over time, as we mold our business to work better for us, and get to a point of having enough hired help to give us a break now and then. We do love having friends and family out to the farm. (We try not to work them too hard, promise!) And it is really wonderful to share the place we spend all of our time with the people who know us best. This year we are hoping to have more casual barbecues and informal work days where we can have friends and family join us. And in the off season, we make sure to visit as many friends and family as we can.
Please share a favorite recipe for a simple, straight from the farm dish that you are craving this fall/winter. Our endless winter craving is for chicory salad. We fell in love with these greens last winter, our first time farming year-round, and seriously look forward to this salad all year! You can make it using any chicory: catalonga (Italian dandelion), radicchio, sugarloaf, treviso, frisee, castelfranco, escarole, puntarelle, etc. These greens are somewhat unusual, but you should be able to find them at a good farmers market. I can’t say I’d recommend buying them at the store because they likely have sat there in the produce case for a long time (chicory isn’t popular like apples)—they may taste pretty terrible. So go to market, support your local farmer, and make their day by asking if they have any chicories!
Okay, you take your chicory, and this is key: you want to slice it thinly (maybe ¼ to ½” ribbons), and then soak it in a big bowl of cold water. This is the magic trick! If you’ve had chicory before and thought it was awful, they probably didn’t soak it. I soak for varied amounts of time, from 20 minutes to overnight, and it all seems to work great. While it’s soaking you can make your vinaigrette! Chicories like a sturdy, sweet vinaigrette. Mine is roughly as follows (and substituting different vinegars and mustards is a-okay): 2 cloves of minced garlic, maybe 2-4T red wine vinegar, 1-2T Dijon mustard, 2-4T honey, 2-4T tahini, about ½ cup olive oil, and a big pinch of salt. Put everything but the olive oil in a mason jar, screw on a lid and shake it up really good. Then add your oil and shake it again until emulsified. Taste to see if it needs anything, and you can add a little warm water if it seems really thick. Now, you can spin your chicory dry and pile it in a bowl. Dress it liberally and massage gently using your hands. Your hands are the best tool for properly dressing a salad! Taste a leaf and see if it needs more dressing. And then you’re done! You can add cheese, nuts, and so on, but we usually just eat it plain Jane style. Enjoy!