An Eating Weekend, Chapter Two: Dinner at Small Farm.

It’s so nice to get something in the mail that isn’t a circular or a bill, which is why a few weeks ago I was so excited to find, amongst many circulars and bills, an invitation from Amanda to dinner at Small Farm in Stow.

Dinner at Small Farm, 1Small Farm is owned by Barbara and Dwight Sipler… who also happen to be Amanda’s parents’ cousins, so my friend has had the enviable pleasure of visiting, working on and reaping the benefits of the farm for most of her life.  In fact, after everyone arrived and mingled a bit late Sunday afternoon, Amanda herded us into a circle and spoke briefly about her Small Farm memories; she then asked Barbara and Dwight to talk about their history as farmers.

The farm, Barbara told us, started out as a hobby.  “So be careful of your hobbies,” she said gravely, looking each one of us in the eye.  She then informed us that, over the years, she and Dwight have come to think of the farm as “a ministry,” which I found utterly fascinating.  What a wonderful way to describe something you love, don’t you think?

Dwight provided us with a few interesting facts.  There are, for example, over 3000 other small farms in Massachusetts, meaning they fit the USDA’s definition of such based on their gross sales below $250,000. Middlesex County is is ranked first in the state for direct sales of farm produce to consumers, a tidbit that made me feel very fancy and important.  Something else that made me feel fancy and important was the fact that Keith and I didn’t get lost on the way to the farm (even though I was navigating), a feat I proudly announced when Amanda asked us each to share something that we were grateful for.

Dinner at Small Farm, 5While many people rightfully said that they were thankful to be at the farm that day, I’ve got to confess I agreed the most with Chris‘s statement: “I’m grateful for tomatoes.”

Small Farm grows a ridiculous amount of tomato varietals, many of which are planted in a “maze garden.”  Types include the Sun Cherry and the Wapsipinicon Peach, the name of which we all had to ask Dwight to repeat several times before we could manage it ourselves.  I love tomatoes — one summer, Darlington gifted me with thumbnail-sized orange tomatoes that she had picked from the farm; after one taste, I immediately ate them all.  They were like tomato-flavored candy.

It was a bit too early in the season for tomatoes to make an appearance on either our dinner menu or the vine, but it didn’t stop many of us from traipsing through the still-growing maze.  Sure, we could all see over the tops of the leaves and stakes, but it was easy to imagine what the plants will look like in a few weeks’ time.  Even if the tomatoes don’t grow to be six feet tall, it doesn’t matter; the maze is geared towards young children — who, I’m told, are shorter than me.  They’ll do just fine in the maze (though Heather did suggest I shuffle through on my knees for a more authentic maze experience).

Dinner at Small Farm, 2After we all expressed what we were appreciative of (seasons, friendship, sunny days, film), Amanda quickly described what it was we would be eating for dinner.  As the meal was meant to be a celebration of the summer ahead of us, she had picked numerous pints of strawberries — which I personally consider to be the summeriest of summer berries — and turned it all into a sweet chilled soup, into which she directed us to drop a dollop of sour cream.*  We also had several different kinds of salads, (one of which also featured strawberries).  Most of the greens came from Small Farm’s lettuce beds, though I can’t say the same about the two  delicious and colorful pasta salads, or the hearty salmon/asparagus/peapod salad Amanda provided for additional protein.

Dinner at Small Farm, 3Oh, and you can’t tell from the photos here, but my plate was much fuller than it seems.  I didn’t think to take a shot from the side.  Had I thought of it, the picture would have looked like a veritable mountain of edible green.  It’s taller than it appears.

Our dessert was equally strawberry-centric; Amanda had set aside a large bowl of berries for us to spoon atop vanilla ice cream from Erikson’s Dairy up the road.  For our huge group, I think we had something like ten gallons.  I may be overestimating here, but I honestly doubt it.  Regardless, most of it — if not all — was eaten.

Aside from the strawberries and (ice) cream, there were also chocolate treats: two different kinds of cookies** and the densest, richest, most perfect little brownies I have ever eaten.  I went for seconds, which means that one of Amanda’s other guests probably missed out because of my gluttony.

I should take a moment here to note that this would have been a bad photo for the side-view angle; my bowl was extremely shallow, so anything would have appeared monstrous from the side.

That may or may not be a cover-up for my ravenousness.

Dinner at Small Farm, 6Prior to our eating, Barbara explained that the day before the dinner had been Small Farm’s 2009 opening day, which was why the crops “still look so pretty.”  She then kindly said to us all, “Today, Small Farm is yours,” and encouraged us to pick flowers, fruit and vegetables to take home.

While I wanted to make a run for the fields, I showed restraint and held back; Keith and I have a weekly CSA box, after all, and besides, I’m looking forward to returning to the farm as a paying customer.  I’ve got to do my part as a Middlesex County resident, haven’t I?

I instead ambled towards the assorted herbs, plants and vegetables, brushing my hands in the thyme creeping along the ground and fingering the downy fuzz of as many sage leaves I could.  I thought about stretching out under the morning glory teepee but worried about mudstains and impropriety; instead I pointed out to Keith where the amaranth would come in, in time, and where the blackberry patch was, brambles and bees and all.

At one point, we debated over this funny little figure living in the middle of the cherry tomato maze.  I think it’s a hippo; Keith and Melissa think it’s a polar bear.  I’ll take a gander and say that no matter its species, it’s pretty damn cute.

Dinner at Small Farm, 4Small Farm is now open for the 2009 growing and harvesting season.  While the farm does not offer a CSA program, it does have a farmstand; hours are from ten in the morning until six in the evening.  There you can purchase whatever produce Dwight and Barbara have chosen to grow, as well as pick your own flowers.

Like many of the nation’s other small farms, Small Farm is an uncertified organic farm; this means that while Barbara and Dwight have always followed organic farming practices as defined by the USDA’s National Organic Program, they have opted not to apply for certification.  To do so would mean to pay a not-insignificant series of fees, which would result not only in a certificate from the NOP but also in an equally not-insignificant increase in prices for the consumer… something Small Farm isn’t interested in.  Should you have any questions about Small Farm’s method of growing their produce, feel free to email them here.

Certification or no, take my advice: make the trip out to Stow and stop by the Siplers’ farm.  You’re bound to love it.

Need more convincing?  Check out the photographs I’ve taken during my visits at Small Farm here, and some far more impressive photographs Dwight has snapped over the years here, including of the party itself.

Small Farm
184 Gleasondale Road
Route 62
Stow, Massachusetts 01775

* Amanda doesn’t know it yet, but she’s going to give me the recipe.
** One of which I baked.  I hate going to parties empty-handed.

Farming with Book Club.

For months, or so it seems, the ladies of book club and I have been wanting to read Barbara Kingsolver‘s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, except we could never think of how to relate it to the previous month’s selection.  Generally, we try to have some sort of link from book to book; this series of connections started when we read…

  • The Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, the story of a boy who burns down Emily Dickinson’s house, leading us to read…
  • Afternoons with Emily, a fictionalized account of a young girl’s relationship with the poet, bringing us to…
  • The Poet and the Murderer, a true-crime following a counterfeiter’s body of work, which included a forged Dickinson poem and a document signed by Abraham Lincoln, inspiring us to read…
  • Assassination Vacation, which briefly tells the tale of Lincoln’s box-mates at the Ford’s Theatre, who were not only the focus of…
  • Henry and Clara, but also step-siblings who married each other, causing us to want to read a more scandalous book about incest like…
  • Flowers in the Attic, which we were not able to thematically tie to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle at all, so we decided to start a new chain.

It doesn’t seem quite right to call this Kingsolver’s book, since she wrote it with the assistance of her husband Steven L. Hopp and her eldest daughter Camille.  Along with Kingsolver’s youngest daughter Lily, the four moved from their home in Tuscon to rural Virginia.  Before their arrival, the family had decided after much contemplation to spend one calendar year living almost entirely off of the produce they planned to farm on their forty-acres of land.  Since no one in the Kingsolver-Hopp household has a wholly unrealistic mentality, each of the four chose one non-locavore item like olive oil and coffee that he or she knew would be difficult to live without.  For the other things that the family was unable to grow or raise themselves, they resolved to buy exclusively from local vendors or farms.

Like I said, the Kingsolvers and the Hopps are reasonable folk; they completely understand that the lifestyle they adopted is one that most are unable to undertake.  I know I personally don’t have the ability to grow what I need to eat in my backyard, and no one in book club can say any differently.  What we did have, however, was an in with Barbara and Dwight Sipler at Small Farm in Stow — Dwight is Amanda and Darlington’s family, a relation we chose to exploit by hosting our meeting at the farm.  It was entirely in the same spirit as this month’s book.

I had been looking forward to our trip to Small Farm, but as it got closer I began to get a little anxious; it had been raining in torrents for days, and I was beginning to forget what sunlight felt like on my face.  The weather did let up a bit, but still — rain.

We lucked out when we first arrived at the farm with just a like drizzle, but rather than chance it we immediately started picking herbs and vegetables; I only gathered a few eggplants, some mint and a handful of lavender since I knew I would be receiving my CSA box in two days.  Amanda, Darlington, Melissa and Sarah picked lettuces, rainbow chard, peppers, herbs and beets.

We set up our spread under the tent behind the farm stand.  Our original plan was to make a handful of the recipes Camille Kingsolver included in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but Sarah was the only one who followed through by preparing what the book refers to as “Disappearing Zucchini Orzo.”  Amanda had made some beans — the same beans depicted in the cover art, actually; Darlington brought drinks; I had packed turnips, a special request; Melissa picked some greens for a salad, which she tossed with goat cheese, raspberries, cucumbers and a balsamic vinaigrette.  (She had also brought a bag of sweet bite-sized bread from Iggy’s in lieu of croutons, but I can’t recall exactly what they were called.)

Barbara Sipler sat with us while we ate; she had, coincidentally, just finished reading the book as well.  As we chatted, mosquitoes descended upon us — I guess we were too tempting a target to pass up, pretty much sitting ducks.  When I got home, I counted my bites: twenty-three, including one on my thigh that I had unknowingly scratched so hard that I gave myself an extremely lurid bruise that, come to think of it, looks a bit like an eggplant.

Here are some photos from the farm.

I have never been stung by a bee, and am vaguely terrified of them.

Doesn’t this look somewhat like an oversize earring?

A pair of pretty lettuces.

One of many butterflies.

I think this is called an amaranth, but I may be totally wrong.

As of today, Small Farm is still open for the season; if you’re in the area, definitely stop by.

Small Farm
184 Gleasondale Road
Route 62
Stow, Massachusetts 01775

Disappearing Zucchini Orzo, from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Makes four servings.

¾ pound orzo
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 large zucchini
olive oil
¼ cup grated Parmesan or any hard yellow cheese

  1. Bring six cups water or chicken stock to a boil and add pasta. Cook according to package instructions.
  2. Use a cheese grater or mandoline to shred zucchini; sauté briefly with chopped onion and garlic until lightly golden. Add spices to zucchini mixture, stir thoroughly, and then remove mixture from heat. Combine with cheese and cooked orzo;salt to taste.  Serve cool or at room temperature.

CSA 2008, Week Five: Guest Writer!

Since Keith and I are in Oregon and therefore unable to use our CSA box, I asked my friends Amanda and Darlington (who are also sisters, I might add) if they wanted some fresh, locally-harvested vegetables. Not only did they eagerly agree, Amanda even wrote about her on-and-off love affair with the carrot and provided a carrot-centric recipe. Enjoy!
— Nayiri

When running on a hot summer’s eve, it helps to have something awaiting you at the finish line — perhaps a cool pond for swimming, the promise of a tasty meal, or even — as was the case on Tuesday — a fresh carrot! Straight from Nayiri and Keith’s vegetable box which I had picked up hours earlier (in their absence), it really was a deliciously sweet carrot.

But my relationship with the carrot hasn’t always been so serene.

Eight years ago I spent a season working on my cousins’ organic vegetable and flower farm in Stow, Massachusetts. One Sunday afternoon in late September I brought a friend to visit the farm. We chatted while I deftly chopped (with small machete) the greens off carrots fresh from the ground. (One might wonder why I needed a small machete to hack greens off carrots when a simple kitchen knife or scissors would do, but something about “expertly” wielding that knife just made me feel strong.)

So there I was strongly chopping and happily chatting until THWHACK! — I deftly chopped a chunk out of my finger. A mess ensued, followed by a trip to the local fire station where I have distinct memories of blood dripping on the driveway and an EMT telling me I should see a doctor.

My aforementioned friend offered to drive the forty-five minutes home; a generous offer indeed, but sadly, she couldn’t drive a standard so I held my left (injured) hand in the air while one-handedly driving us home. Then my father took me to the ER and then bought us ice creams cones. While it’s a well-known fact that any day ending with ice cream can’t be all bad, it took me a while to regain my affinity for carrots.

Sure, there are some pretty amazing things about carrots — how they can enhance night vision (debatable), how they can turn skin orange (true, if you eat enough), how they originated in Afghanistan in purple, red, white, yellow (but not orange!). Still, one look at the scar on my finger and my stomach churned at the thought of this particular root vegetable.

In fact, it wasn’t until last Thanksgiving that all was set aright between the carrot and I. It came in the form of a peace offering of sorts — from that very same farm where I had wielded the machete — and it was the most lovely, creamy, orange peace offering I have seen. Bearing the name “Carrot Soufflé” and prepared by my farmer cousin Barbara, it was the talk of the table.

Now that my appreciation for the carrot is back, you can imagine my delight at seeing a lovely bunch in this week’s vegetable box: perfect for snacking upon after a sweaty run. (They are 87% water, after all!)

And so a few days ago, when I shaved a chunk out of my thumb with a carrot peeler, I conjured up all of my positive carrot memories, took a deep breath, and reminded myself that the best thing to do with a carrot is neither chop nor peel it, but simply eat it — skin, bits of dirt and all.

If that isn’t enough to tempt you toward a big crunchy bite, there’s always this: the Ancient Greek called the carrot a philtron, which translates to “love charm.” They believed it made men and women more amorous.

Carrots, anyone?
— Amanda

Carrot Soufflé, from Barbara and Dwight Sipler at small farm
Makes six portions

1½ pounds carrots, sliced
½ cup butter or margarine
3 large eggs
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1½ tsp baking powder
½ cup sugar
¼ tsp ground cinnamon

  1. Cook carrots in boiling water to cover, twenty to twenty-five minutes or until tender. Drain.
  2. Transfer carrots to a food processor or blender and process until smooth, stopping to scrape down sides occasionally. Add remaining ingredients and continue processing until smooth. Spoon into a lightly greased 1½ quart soufflé dish.
  3. Bake at 350˚ for one hour and ten minutes, or until soufflé is set.