Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
[ Member listing ]

Hop, Hop, Hop

 

  What is a hop? No, I'm not referring to something the rabbits are doing, I'm talking about a plant. I think most people are familiar with hops, although they might not even know it! Combined with water, malted barley, and yeast, they are one of the basic ingredients used in making beer as they add flavor, and can also act as a preservative. Hops are also considered an herb, one useful in making potpourri, as an all-natural brown dye, and in tea as a digestive aid or appetite stimulant. Placing the cones in a small satchel under your pillow is supposed to promote dreaming. The flowers can be added to a bath as a relaxing infusion or in dried flower arrangements. The young leaves and shoots are even edible. (I love perusing my herb books...it never ceases to amaze me how many uses can be found for the plants we grow!) Unfortunately, despite our best efforts at watering them, the summer was just too dry and we didn't get much of a harvest of hop cones for me to play around with.

Hops are a neat plant in that they are a perennial vine which grows to a length of up to 30 feet. But although the roots overwinter, and can be propagated by division much like bulbs such as iris or daffodil, the vine dies back to the ground each year. That means they grow 30 feet every year! This makes them a popular plant for a leafy screen or other floral focal point when grown on a trellis. Our vines climb the side of the small house and face the garden & road. As they can grow up to a foot a day in the spring, it really is possible to note a difference in the plants between morning and evening, which never ceases to amaze me. But, at the end of the year, after a killing frost, (we have had several at this point) the vines die. It's best to remove them to give the young shoots a fresh start in the spring. You can wait until the vines are dry and brittle, but if you cut them down just as the leaves start to die, the vines are still yellow and pliable. At this stage it is possible to use the vines for weaving into baskets or wreaths. The wreaths look much like a traditional grapevine wreath. I'm still learning to identify the perfect balance between cutting late enough that the roots won't be affected and waiting until the vines are too brittle. But I was able to make a few wreaths from our vines this year, and I'm offering the nicest ones up for sale. I love artsy stuff, I actually got a minor in studio arts in college and I think it's fun to find ways to be creative around the farm. Weaving the vines into a wreath was a new thing for me, and as I practiced I started to get a feel for what worked and what didn't. To me, though, the best part is that, once again, I'm finding a use for something that otherwise would have been wasted (well, not completely, they could be composted, but this is cooler!). And for our customers, they can pick up something that is 100% organic and sustainable. Part of me can't wait for next fall so I can try my hand at them again, but that is one of the best parts about being on the farm- each season brings its own distinct and different tasks and activities.  

 The finished product, on display at the stand.

 


 
 

Home Cooking

Isn't it amazing how it feels like fall the minute the schools open again? Just a night or two before our local schools started the new year, we had lows in the 40's and I'm seeing the first blushes of color in the leaves of the trees. The garden says fall is near as well. Although there are still plenty of tomatoes and peppers to pick, the corn and beans have given their last picking. Weeds have gained control of much of the rows, and instead of spending my days weeding them, we'll just till them under when we put the garden to bed for the year. It has a feeling of winding down, despite the fact that there is still more picking to do. We'll wait for the first frosts to harvest the winter squash, so until then, it's not quite the frenzied feeling when picking and prepping Saturday mornings before the stand opens. There is lots to can during the week as well, but it also feels like the downhill slide.


One part of the garden is still getting my attention though, and that's the herbs. Part of it is because they don't get as tall as lots of other plants, and would quickly be shaded out if I didn't keep up on the weeding. But mostly, I think it's because I love weeding there. Even gently brushing by the various leaves as I weed, I'm rewarded by the fragrances. My nose alone can tell if I'm caring for the thyme, the sage, the basil. The dill is blooming so strongly right now I can smell it when I pass by on the riding lawnmower, even above the motor and fresh-cut-grass smells. The herbs were the first garden plants that I really tended myself as I came to the farm, and still, they feel like the part of the garden that is mine alone. I plan it, I pick it, I decide whether to freeze or dry them or what to season with them. I like that. And most importantly, I've learned how to use them in my cooking.

Anise & Rosemary

 

I grow a decent variety of herbs, so I can pretty much season any dish I like. This year, I had success with chives, oregano, lemon balm, basil, lime basil, borage, cilantro, parsley, rosemary, anise, thyme and sage. I also planted garlic chives from seed, and they've finally gotten to the point I think I'll be cutting a few before too long. About the only thing that didn't take was the Thai basil, which isn't bad considering I plant from seed, and herbs are notoriously tricky and/or slow to come up. Ancient wisdom said that parsley had to go to the underworld and back seven times before it would sprout, it takes so long to germinate!

 

Thyme & Parsley  

Believe it or not, before I came to the farm, I wasn't much of a cook. Cooking was something that had to be done, but not because I enjoyed it. “From scratch” was something other people did, Hamburger Helper was good enough for me. My idea of seasonings ran toward garlic salt or grilling seasoning mixes. Now, I've done a complete turnaround. When bringing ham barbecue to a gathering last weekend, “I made it myself” meant not only did I cook the pork and make the sauce instead of pouring it out of a bottle, I gave the piglets their baby shots and loaded them onto the processor's trailer. I find I enjoy cooking so much more now, and the flavors are just incredible when you can walk out the kitchen door, scissors in hand, and walk back in with the flavorings. No salts, fats or preservatives, just fresh clean flavors. I like being able to say that the sage in our sausage is our own, or the cilantro in my salsa was cut just before I added it to the pot. But most of all, I just enjoy having them for myself, when I'm cooking for Dan and I. I love being able to take chances and throw things together and see what tastes I can come up with just mainly ingredients we make ourselves. And Dan is the farthest thing from a picky eater, over the last five years there have maybe been two times we decided to pass on whatever dish just didn't turn out right. Not bad, considering most of it was created on the fly, without much guidance from a recipe book!

Borage, Dill & Cilantro/Coriander

To me, being able to do that is the epitome of eating seasonally, and that is something I really strive to do, because the tastes are unbelievable. I even threatened that last night was my last night to cook, ever, because I'm not sure if the meal could be topped. I started out with the idea of making chicken alfredo, so I cooked up a breast of one of our chickens. I made the sauce from homemade chicken stock from the freezer and cream cheese. (No, that wasn't from my own cows, but even I'm allowed to cheat once in awhile!) Then I grated up some pattypan squash to add to the mix. For flavor, I put a good deal of fresh parsley and a bit of basil in my hand-cranked herb mill, and threw in some of the smoked cheddar we sell. Now it was getting some good flavor. Usually I would use garlic and a lot more basil, but I wanted a milder, creamer flavor so as not to overpower the most gourmet of my ingredients- more prized than naturally raised chicken or artisan smoked cheese- my mushrooms. Earlier, just an hour or so before, Dan and I had investigated our secret patches. I had a few chantrelles, but they still aren't coming on as strong as I expect they will after the next rain. And chantrelles retail for something like $50 per pound, and are one of the three gourmet mushrooms of western Pennsylvania that are highly sought after by chefs and cannot be grown, they must be harvested wild from the forests. We're lucky to have a good patch. The other two such forest fungi treats are morels (sadly, I have yet to pick one of those) and hen of the woods. I also found a hen last night and harvested part of that large mushroom as well. That went into the mix too. The result, served over some whole wheat pasta, was truly worthy of a five star restaurant. It likely would have cost a pretty penny at one of those places, considering the number of gourmet items that aren't always easy or possible to procure that went into it. However, I made it for (literally) the cost of some butter, cream cheese and noodles. So to me, eating seasonally means eating well, and life was sure good last night. So good I probably won't top it for awhile, but on second thought I don't think I'll give up cooking just yet. Ordering pizza in just wouldn't be as good!

 
 

The Lack

Saturday at the stand, we had beets, cucumbers, zucchini, yellow zucchini, pattypan and crookneck squash, bell peppers, jalapeños, sweet banana & inferno banana peppers, Swiss chard, heirloom lettuce, red & white new potatoes and plum tomatoes.  We had fresh herbs- basil, Thai basil, mint, chamomile, chives and cilantro plus 4 kinds of herb seeds for growing at home, dried oregano, chamomile, and coriander.  I have personally canned and offered for sale my secret-recipe pickles in two sizes, extra hot pepper rings, 2 kinds of whole grain mustards (honey & ginger garlic), 3 flavored and one home fermented vinegar (blueberry basil, dried herb, mulled blackberry and champagne) and seven kinds of jelly (mint, hot pepper, black forest, carrot cake, cranberry-peach conserve, gingered pear and oriental rhubarb) and a sweet & hot dipping sauce.  We had free range eggs, pastured pork (bacon, ham, 4 varieties of homemade sausage, roasts, chops, ribs, ham steak & ham hock), whole farm-raised and -processed chickens, and our grass fed beef (ground beef, stew meat, sirloins, T-bones, round steaks, rib steaks, chuck roasts, R.B. roast, rolled rump roast, tip roast).  We also had (but do not make ourselves) six different flavors of raw milk cheese (cheddar, smoked cheddar, jalepeno, dill & bacon, horseradish and goat's milk) from a family-run farm & cheese house in Chambersburg, PA.  As I set up, things looked full and prosperous to me.  I feel that it is an amazing variety for a 50-acre farm worked by hand and by horse, with just 2 employees (Dan and myself- no hired help!) making sure everything gets done.

 

Imagine my frustrations then, when about 1/4 of our visitors asked variations on the question "Don't you have much of anything today?" Our sweet corn will be ready this coming weekend, as will lots more tomatoes, including the big beefsteaks.  For a quarter of my customers this past weekend, apparently that is all that is worth going to a local farm for.  Some folks were just disappointed that they had to alter the weekend's menu. For others,  "We'll have it next week"  was greeted by "but I want it this week!"  It sounded like a preschooler's tantrum, minus the foot-stomping, and was immediately followed by demands for directions to another farm that might be more cooperative. It was also a slower day, and that made it easy to feel a bit discouraged.  While I realize that as farmers, part of our responsibility to our customers is to help them understand what local and seasonal really mean, not everyone is going to be interested in that lesson, especially if it means they can't have exactly what they want whenever they want it.

 It reminded me of a speech I heard a while back at a forum on dealing with folks in poverty...the speaker addressed "the lack."  Her use of it was basically if someone is poor, they are often seen as lacking anything to contribute, but if you truly look at the person they often have non-monetary things in their favor- creativity, compassion, a good work ethic, etc.  God-given gifts that as humans we often fail to see.  I saw my farm that way this weekend; some of my folks couldn't see the bounty for the lack of corn.  I understand the seasons here and know we did everything in our power to get the corn and tomatoes to ripen (organically!!!) as soon as possible.  But I also know what an amazing meal I had last night using things that were on the table over the weekend- a ham with a glaze made from mulled blackberry vinegar, with sautéed julienned zucchini smothered in cheese and fresh herbs.  Certainly we didn't fell any lack at the table last night, other than a lack of restraint when it came to second helpings!  My beautiful plum tomatoes, which were soundly rejected as being "too meaty" by a customer looking for tomatoes, perfumed my living room as I turned them into sun dried tomatoes in my dehydrator.  So this weekend, as you patronize your favorite farm, try not to be too disappointed if you get there and don't see the product you initially came looking for.  Instead of lamenting the lack, try to celebrate the possibilities!

 
 

Tastes of Winter

It's been a cold and snowy new year...so far we haven't had a day without being under a winter advisory or warning of some sort.  Currently, we have about 18 inches of snow here.  A lot more has fallen, but it's been fluffy snow that compacts, so while the white stuff keeps falling, and the cars need to be cleaned off every morning, it's not too deep, which is a good thing!

Since it's not nice outside, I spend a lot of time in my kitchen on these cold winter nights.  The hardest part of learning to eat seasonally is picturing what winter dinners will look like...no one wants to eat boiled potatoes and turnips all winter, so how to you stay seasonal and love what you're eating?  My first suggestion would be to buy a freezer!  I have lots of dinner choices since we have frozen beef, pork, lamb and chicken in the freezer.  Corn and green peppers freeze well and aren't hard to process at all, so we can still enjoy those as well.  Of course, we have squash, onions and potatoes which keep well in a cool, dark place like our basement.  The chickens are also laying reasonably well, providing us with fresh eggs.  Combine that with the things I canned over the summer and we can eat well all winter long.

Earlier this week, I came home from work and defrosted some pork chops.  After browning them in a pan with some olive oil and butter, I put them in an oven proof dish.  Then I caramelized an onion in the same pan and topped the chops with the onion, a dab of butter on each, and some herbs I'd dried from my garden (I used thyme and sage this time, but this recipe adapts well to whatever herbs you prefer/have on hand).  I put it in the oven at 350, covered with foil.  Since I had some room in the oven, I added a kabocha squash, seeded and halved, cut side down on a baking sheet as well.  In about an hour, I pulled it all from the oven and had a simple, but seasonal and delicious meal! 

The next night I made a half leg of lamb.  I slow cooked it in a crock pot all day with water & cooking sherry, garlic, onion and rosemary. I did cheat a bit on this one and also added some fresh ginger root which was store bought, but I love the taste it adds! A side of pasta completed a very filling meal.

Last night I made enchiladas with our ground beef, my homemade salsa, and the raw milk cheese we sold at the stand this year.  I only have a few blocks of cheese left, and I'm sure going to miss it when it's gone! Although we grind our own cornmeal, I haven't yet tried to make my own tortillas, so those came from the store too.  Besides, I am back to work full time now and I don't always have the time or energy to make everything from scratch every night.

So, no matter where you live, it is possible to eat seasonally, and eat well! And for those of you starting out, don't feel bad if everything isn't completely homemade or local...we all start somewhere, and the first step is being aware of our food choices and learning to recognize what seasonal looks like.   Just one or two local, seasonal items added to your everyday cooking does make a difference! 

 
 

Thoughts on Eating Seasonally

As I finished setting up the store this weekend, I really noticed how the look of it has changed from the beginning of the season.  Gone are the piles of zucchini  and summer squash. Taking their place are a colorful selection of winter squash and pumpkins.  Tomatoes are nowhere to be found, except in the homemade jars of salsa for sale.  Sweet corn has been replaced by corn shocks and ornamental corn.  Heads of lettuce have given way to heads of cabbage.  Even the sunflowers we placed on the table for decoration have ceased to bloom, and are now being sold, full of seed, as all-natural bird feeders.

Even though I grew up away from farming, I still lived in the country enough to have an awareness of seasonal eating.  Sweet corn from the store was never good, it was best bought from the back of a pickup, especially if that pickup happened to be at the ice cream stand just a block away!  As children, my brothers, sisters and I knew when to roam the woods looking for blackberries and blueberries.  It was, to us, just something everyone knew was true...those store bought blackberries in January were no match for the good stuff that left your hands stained after a day of picking in the summer sunshine!

 When you stop and think, it is an amazing thing that any fruit or vegetable you want can be found, year round, at any local grocery store.  Do you really need to have tomatoes available all year?  It seems many Americans would answer "yes!" without pausing to think about where the vegetables and fruit are coming from, how they are transported across the globe just so we have the option of having them any given week of the year.  It's a luxury we don't even think about.  The longer I am on the farm, the more my eating habits turn with the seasons...while summer is for chicken salad on a bed of fresh greens with tomatoes and cucumber, fall leans more toward a baked squash with sausage and onion stuffing.  While this has been a process, it's one I wasn't really aware I was making.  Sometimes it's kind of a jolt to realize that not everyone is so aware, and that happened a few times today.  An older gentleman asked me where my sweet corn was.  I explained that October is too late in the year for that vegetable to grow here, and the look on his face said that he couldn't understand what farm stand wouldn't offer corn on demand like any self-respecting grocery store.  Another woman commented that it must be fall since there wasn't much on the table.  Both walked out empty handed.  I though about her comment, then tried to see my table the same way...but the potatoes, onions, peppers, cabbage,squash, etc got in my way.  All I could see was a bountiful harvest.  To be sure, there were items that were missing from the grocery store's standards, but to me those vegetables taste all the sweeter when they are fresh and in season, even if that means missing them for months out of the year.  After all, there's always something else in season to make a delicious meal from! 

 

 
 
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