City slickers can farm their own food, too
Even as a longtime advocate of all things local, natural and homemade, chef Greg Atkinson says the thoroughness of the approach in "The Urban Farm Handbook" left him feeling like a neophyte.
"THE URBAN Farm Handbook," subtitled "City Slicker Resources for Growing, Raising, Sourcing, Trading, and Preparing What You Eat," presents such a complete approach to food and lifestyle that readers may think they've stumbled upon a manual for surviving the end of civilization as we know it.
Then again, the book makes raising animals, gardening, canning, drying food, freezing food, fermenting food, pickling food and purchasing food through "buying clubs" so tantalizing that readers might just find themselves slipping into an alternative culture without waiting for this one to crash.
Some disclosure: Last fall I spoke at an event called "Eat Local Now" and shared a table with the co-authors of this book, Annette Cottrell and Joshua McNichols. At that event, Cottrell received the 2011 Jeff Fairhall Local Food Hero Award. More disclosure: The book was photographed by Harley Soltes, who once was a staff photographer for The Seattle Times and often photographed dishes I prepared to illustrate this column.
More disclosure: When I spent a week at a writer's retreat in Eastern Washington last summer, McNichols was my roommate; we cooked together, milked goats together, made cheese and harvested vegetables together. We shared stories and wine, too, so I am not an impartial judge of this work. In fact, if following its advice constitutes membership in some kind of secret society, then I probably, albeit unwittingly, became a member long ago.
And yet, even as a longtime advocate of all things local, natural and homemade, I felt like a neophyte in the land of do-it-yourself after I saw how thorough Cottrell and McNichols were.
Cottrell writes that in a year she made more than 1,600 pancakes, 100 loaves of bread and 80 pizzas. "I milked Mona the goat and slaughtered Chubby the pig, as well as various chickens and rabbits." She also grew more than 460 pounds of produce, collected more than 1,000 backyard eggs, stuffed sausages, cured bacon, put up 250 jars of preserves, pressed cheese, cultured yogurt, mixed herbal tinctures and made soap, among other things domestic.
"The sheer number of hours I spend preparing food for my family has, at times, seemed absurd even to me, and has definitely shocked others. But what I've found is that with experience, I've become efficient and organized."
McNichols experienced a similar transformation. And when people ask if all the effort is worth it, he writes, "If this were just about the food, I'd burn out. But it's not just about the food . . .
"I've met people who taught me to feel passion for my food. I've met farmers visionary enough to grow food answerable to their consciences. I've found friends and neighbors who've found ways to get that food despite significant obstacles. When all these people gather together, it feels like a movement. That's significant because movements are fueled by optimism. And in an age when environmental disaster looms over the horizon, when we still bear bruises from the economic recession, optimism is a precious thing."
Greg Atkinson is a Seattle-area chef, author and consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mini Arugula and Goat Cheese Soufflés
Makes 6 servings
You don't have to keep chickens or grow your own arugula to produce these savory soufflés at home, but, armed with the information in this book, you certainly could. The recipe calls for Gorgonzola, but you can use any goat cheese.
1 large bunch of arugula
Boiling water as needed
4 tablespoons butter, divided
3 tablespoons breadcrumbs
4 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups milk
6 eggs, divided into whites and yolks
1 cup crumbled Gorgonzola or fresh white goat cheese, crumbled
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon paprika, optional
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Cook the arugula in boiling water just until it grows limp and turns a darker shade of green, about 1 minute. Drain the arugula in a colander and rinse it under cold running water to cool it off. Squeeze out any excess moisture and, if the leaves are very large, give them a rough chop.
2. Use 1 tablespoon of the butter to butter 6 large (10-ounce) ramekins and sprinkle the insides of each dish with the breadcrumbs. Arrange the prepared ramekins on a sheet pan and preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
3. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the remaining butter over medium heat and whisk in the flour. Stir until the mixture is bubbling hot and slightly thickened. Gradually whisk in the milk, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens and comes to a full, rolling boil, about 1 minute. Remove pan from heat and allow the mixture to cool for 5 minutes.
4. Whisk the egg yolks, one at a time, into the cooled milk mixture. Then stir in the blanched arugula, the crumbled cheese, the nutmeg and the paprika.
5. In a clean, dry bowl, preferably the bowl of an electric mixer, whisk the egg whites with the salt until they hold stiff peaks. Whisk one-fourth of the beaten egg whites into the yolk mixture, then fold in the remaining egg whites, handling the mixture carefully to keep the egg whites inflated.
6. Distribute the mixture evenly among the prepared ramekins and transfer them to the preheated oven; turn the oven down to 375 degrees and allow the soufflés to bake until they are puffed well above the edges of the dishes and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Serve hot.
— Adapted from "The Urban Farm Handbook"