Some foods come with a regional pedigree and an experience that can’t be replicated elsewhere. Hofbrau Dunkel beer tasted the best best when I was drinking it with two thousand raucous Germans at a beer garden in Munich. I’ve gone out for Middle Eastern food several times since returning from Iraq, but restaurant hobus (flatbread) has never had the mildly crisp outside, doughy interior, and slight smokiness of the bread that Iraqi women handed to us straight from their outdoor mud ovens.
Sarah and I eat out to experience flavors that we can’t create at home, but our home cooking is the gateway to flavors--and a satisfaction—that no chef can give us. Sarah made carbonara last week with guanciale that she cured, bacon that I smoked myself, and eggs—with sunset-colored yolks—so fresh they were still warm from the nest box. Food historians debate the origins of carbonara, but I think the intent behind the dish was a quick-to-make meal with ingredients commonly available to Italians at the time—fresh eggs and cured pork. You can debate the authenticity of carbonara made in a Wisconsin farm kitchen, but I think ours is truer to the dish’s intent (and tastier) than one we could order in a local Italian restaurant anyway.
It’s the same with cassoulet. The French can’t agree on what makes a proper cassoulet. Julia Child says as much in Mastering The Art of French Cooking: “The composition of cassoulet is, in typical French fashion, the subject of infinite dispute… arguments about what should go into this famous dish seem based on local traditions.”
Restaurant cassoulet might be tasty, but it won’t be true in the spirit of the dish. In The Third Plate, chef Dan Barber admits that even farm-to-table restaurants like his are guilty of “cherry picking ingredients”. Cassoulet was a peasant dish, a one-pot meal. Having grown up around more than a few frugal farm cooks, I think the real tradition behind cassoulet was about the cook making a good meal by making do.
Making a cassoulet with beans and whatever meat you have on hand can give you a delicious meal, truer to the dish's origins than any restaurant version.
Sarah’s version uses three kinds of pork because that’s what we had in our kitchen freezer. The recipe is a guideline, not a rule.
Sarah’s Cassoulet (AKA clean-out-the-refrigerator)
Julia Child recommends that you make cassoulet in stages as you have time. Like so many stews and bean dishes. this one is better when it's cook a day or two ahead of time and then reheated before serving. The flavors well meld over time.
"If you are working on a problem you can solve in your own lifetime, you're not thinking big enough." —Wes Jackson, Founder, The Land Institute
I’m about to read Dan Barber’s The Third Plate—Field Notes On The Future of Food. My wife, Sarah, enjoyed the book and gave me a partial report, enough that I’m looking forward to reading it and learning. The book gets great reviews for interweaving science, culture, agriculture, and food. A good story helps you see your world differently. When it comes to food and farming, that world is my backyard. I wonder if this is one of those books that changes my outlook on what I do, or a part of it. If so, will that cause me to change how I farm, raise food, or eat?
While delving into this stuff is plenty interesting as a solo expedition, I think it'd a lot more fun with a few other people. After a couple one-on-one exchange visits with other farmers and attending a book club last night, I though it might be fun to read a food/farming book in a book club.
I don’t have the time to schedule/host/moderate a regular book club—especially this time of year, but I’m interested how many other people might be interested in reading The Third Plate during the next month. The book has 450 pages divided into four sections. Reading a section a week should be pretty easy even if your only reading for the day is at lunch (as it usually is for me).
If you are interested in trying this, comment on this post, drop an email or hit me on the Odyssey Farm Facebook page. If there is enough interest, then we can figure out the rest from there. Though the internet has astounding reach, I’d enjoy gathering in person with any local readers in May for drinks and discussion.
It must be the light.
The days are longer. Brighter, clearer spring sunshine has driven away winter’s soft pale light. The hens waddle and scratch farther from their coop. The cats have already left the barn when I fill their food dishes in the morning.
The urge to get out there seems universal.
While the sun lures me to the field, the rains hold me back. Almost four inches of rain over two weeks have saturated the soil. I can hear water gurgle under the low ground. I’m confined to staying around the barn and in the shop. It’s like crunching in the starting block for too long on the track.
I’ve started spring training instead.
It’s probably better than jumping into the work. At 42, I feel like my body and my ’96 Tacoma are at the same stage in life —still capable as ever, but requiring a lot more maintenance. My farming style keeps me fit, but only to a point. If my strength, flexibility, and stamina aren’t solid when it’s time to plant and build fence, I might hurt myself —like running a marathon without building up the the training mileage.
I’ve never been much of a weights guy, but I own a bunch of weights —old-style one-inch-hole plates that I use to ballast and balance the BCS. Since these Craigslist deals came with bars, I’ve started using them.
My "workouts" are short and minimally structured: Deadlifts. Carry 60 lb tractor weights in each hand for 200 feet. Turkish-Get-Ups for core work. Bang out sets of pull-ups and push-ups within the workout or randomly. Workouts only last 20 minutes, two or three times a week. No gym membership. No commute. After just a couple weeks, I feel stronger for not much time invested.
The dirt gym (my barn doesn’t have concrete floors) has been a great outlet for all my coiled spring energy. When it’s time to heft a shoulder load of T-posts, lay wire from a 44-lb spool, carry two 50-lb feed bags across the pasture, or drag a hog shelter, I’ll be ready.
I can’t wait.
Former Marine Infantry Officer. Iraq Vet. Interested in Regenerative Agriculture at any scale.
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