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Pans and Perspective

You provide the food and I will provide the perspective." – Anton Ego, 2007

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Week 9: Over the Hill, Climbing the Next One

Spring planting – the big push to get all of the transplants into the ground – has now come to an end. We are still doing various tasks to finish out this period but the majority of the work is done.

Monday brought a collection of people to breakfast. We had our bed and breakfast guests, two women and two children, Peter, David’s acquaintance, and even Jim, “the syrup guy”, conversation was lively as we all gathered around the table at different intervals and the morning was off to a fantastic start. I spent the day at the hospital garden with the crew. Most of my time was spent setting up planting beds for future transplants. But, David and I did manage to get both summer squash and cucumbers into the ground before we left. Still plagued by early summer heat, we took an extended lunch where I spent time corresponding with some people via email. My upcoming weeks have me involved in a few catering events so I have been planning menus, managing logistics and getting ingredients sourced from local farmers. Later, I continued the bed setup, this time at Pepperfield, while David tilled. I also helped set up some isolation beds for David’s seed crop of peppers placed near the main house. Ellis and I put together dinner from various leftovers and shared it with all in the warm evening heat. The following day I started late. There were errands to run in town and Ellis, David and Birte went separate ways to complete these various tasks. I spent this part of my morning reading. When the team returned, I worked in our garden here doing more bed setups. The heat was brutal and between the sweat pouring off my brow and the humidity that lingered it felt as if I was in a perpetual shower. I did transplants of cucumbers, melons and summer squash before a much needed lunch break. Afterwards I spent the afternoon with Birte transplanting summer and winter onions as well as leeks. We worked well into the afternoon and retired to another round of leftovers in order to clean out the fridge.

Wednesday morning was very wet. There was a solid rain the previous night and the ground was well soaked. David and I cut covers for the rutabagas and turnips as pest protection before moving into the hoop house. Our first task was to clean it up so we would have more room for the next round of plants. Afterwards, I spent the late morning with David and Birte transplanting flowers, tobaccos and basil into larger flats, the final stage before they get put into the ground. We called it an early day and we all spent the time enjoying the cloudy cool weather. I took this opportunity to go to the library in town to acquire a library card as well as pilfer some wifi. When I returned to the farm I made Tom Yum soup for dinner, a dish I thoroughly enjoy, and it was some of the best I had ever tasted. (No bias of course.) Thursday was spent at the hospital garden, I was tasked with transplanting marigolds along the paths for the edible landscape. I wasn’t the only one though, we brought the full team and completed our tasks in under and hour. We returned back to the farm and I worked in the upper vineyard while David dusted the grapes for a fungus. I was tasked with mowing the vineyard that had grass nearly a foot tall. I am embarrassed to say, but I feel it is my obligation to report, that I burned my stomach when I lifted the mower back into the truck. Sweaty, burned and somewhat defeated I returned home to make dinner, a vegetable lasagna, in the style of the one David made the last few times. I was pretty impressed although it could have used some more seasoning.


Friday started early with some manure hauling for squashes. Shortly after we went to the hospital garden for some flower transplants and more mulching. David and I went alone since it was a small task and we finished up our time there with a planting of winter squash. David was satisfied with what we had accomplished so he told me I was off for the rest of the day and I took a lengthy nap. Saturday I awoke early for some shopping at the co-op for one of the catering events I have on my itinerary. The farmers market was happening right next door so I browsed some of the items for sale. I did purchase some fudge which was surprisingly excellent. The recipe listed on the package said it had cheese in it, when I asked the purveyor what kind of cheese he told me it was a soft cheese his wife made. We didn’t have anything on our list for the day so I spent the mid morning reading and writing. After lunch David and I covered some of the plants in the garden just like we did the root vegetables for pest control. David and I attended a music event at Luther College that was fairly interesting. The Norwegian-American Association of Singers presented, by a group of over 200 men, a few soloists, a pianist and a small scale orchestra, a show of classic Norwegian folk songs and some American choral arrangements as well. Sunday was spent mostly in leisure. We got started around 11, much later than usual, in the garden. David and I covered the rest of the susceptible plants and in the midst of this, I collected some rocks to help hold our covers down. Then I moved on to weeding some of the beds we had planted early on in the spring, the mulch had already begun to deteriorate and some weeds had found their way to the surface. We had a late lunch that slowly transformed into a leisurely evening. I went to town to catch a matinee showing of the new Star Wars movie and returned home later for some reading before bed.

Check out what you missed this week here!

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Week 8: A Study in the Totalitarian Law of Physics (or Murphy’s Law)

Anything not expressly forbidden in the universe is compulsory.

If it can go wrong, it will.

This was by far the most unproductive week, although maybe one of my earlier weeks of residence in the snow was comparable. The week commenced with more rain hindering us all from getting anything done. I spent the day indoors cleaning different parts of the house, browsing the internet and reading. Tuesday began to look optimistic; operative word: began. David and I started at the hospital garden with transplants. We had already established the beds earlier in the previous week so the work was easy going. We returned to the farm for a lunch break and then dove right back into more planting. This is when Magnifying the Magnificence of the Mundane occurred. The TL;DR is that during the first few minutes of work the roto-tiller stop functioning. Undeterred we persevered on and I turned the ground by hand with a spading fork. Deepest respects extended to all homesteaders of the earlier generations that did this, it is quite difficult. Once I got the ground turned, a 30 minute project that normally takes two minutes, I mulched the bed and transplanted eggplants and peppers. I really was farming. On our way back to the house, I took a brief detour and planted some amaryllis bulbs and mulched them as well. We shared a dinner of pizza, crafted by Chef Ellis, with David’s daughter and son-in-law, over discussions about their upcoming wedding party. The following day I helped David move the goats into one of the neighboring pastures. David wanted them to graze some of the forage before we mowed it down. I made the transition back to the garden where I did some more earth turning before mulching it with leaves. Afterwards David and I transplanted calendulas into this soft ground for both decoration and consumption later in the season. I continue to putter around in this back garden with weed management and some soil excavation as well. After a long day I retired to the kitchen and made some cornbread and did some knife sharpening.

I have to make a quick aside about this. For nearly three years I have struggled to maintain sharp tools. In school I was a knife skills tutor and have knives that were razor sharp; they could take the hair off my arms. But over time, for one reason or another, which I still haven’t determined, I failed to get my tools even remotely close to that edge. After some feedback from a neighbor of David’s who is an avid knife fanatic I have managed to bring my edges back to razor sharpness. Thursday, still awaiting a repaired tiller, David and I spent our morning moving all of the tropical plants from inside the house to the deck. It was like moving furniture with odd angles because each tree had a different shape and fitting them through each doorway, some large, but most small, required a different kind of patience and poise. We went back to the hospital garden because we still had a few beds left that we could plant in and I spent my time mulching them before moving on to turning a row of earth. Friday was the day that we expected to get the tiller back so we started with light tasks to fill the morning. Moving with the theme of the week, our truck had a flat tire, mounted securely with rusted bolts. Just another hindrance to our spring planting. I moved some pallets out of the way of the mower to provide easier access to some of the grounds. Afterwards I rabbit-proofed the walk-in gate for the squash patch with some guidance from Ellis. I have to say I was pretty proud of my handiwork. With the assistance of AAA we managed to get the tire off and made a trip to town to find a replacement. On our way we stopped at the hospital garden and I turned some more earth. At this point the tiller was so close to complete I could almost feel – I know my body sure felt it. I made corn pudding that night for our meal and we took off for an musical showcase at Luther College. It was a commencement concert for the graduating class and it feature both symphonic orchestra and choral pieces. Oh yeah, still no tiller.

Saturday started early again with the goats. They are animals of habit and even though we had made this small pilgrimage each day for the last few, they were still giving us trouble. Luckily after only a few minutes of herding – and cursing – we managed to get things under control. I spent the early part of the morning cleaning for the bed and breakfast guests. I then moved to to reading and checking emails while we waited for a new update on the tiller. But it wasn’t long until we were operational. About an hour later David returned with our machine and we began in the garden. Currently we are in a record breaking hot spell with temperatures in the high 90’s, with a humidity percentage to match. I set up piles of manure and spread them into rows as he tilled it under. Seeing this happen in a fraction of the time and an exertion of my energy just as low I was ecstatic. Birte came down to help and together we all transplanted lettuces, Asian mustard greens and more peppers. I did a few more rows afterwards for future squash transplants and finished up with some watering before retiring from the heat. One of David’s acquaintances, Peter, stopped by to camp out for a few nights. He brought wine and some snacks and we spent a leisurely evening together. I made stir fry with some of our odds and ends and the conversation continued through dinner late into the evening. Sunday morning we ate breakfast with our guests. I spent some time talking with Peter about some of his hobbies and he did a celestial chart reading for me as well. Back in the swing of things I spent the morning setting up more planting beds in the garden before jumping on transplanting. We had an extended lunch to dodge more of the oppressive heat. Shortly after David and I went to Highlandville to plant a garden for one of David’s old neighbors. We got back about an hour later and I prepared a dinner of pulled pork, baked beans and some other fixings as well. Again the conversation went deep into the night and I ended my day moving a bale of hay from the goat barn to the hoop house before going to bed.

Check out what you may have missed this week here!

Magnifying the Magnificence of the Mundane

Imagine…

The crisp air lightly brushes against my skin. Rays of the afternoon sun beam down with glorious intensity bathing me in a contrast of deep warmth. Each step through the lawn is met by the gentle rustle of grass under foot, almost like a broom running across an old wood floor. With each step creatures, beautiful and unique in design, bellow forth to escape the oncoming assault to their once serene resting place. I reach the old worn wooden gate, paint peeling from its many days standing watch over the bounty housed just behind. It creaks gently as it is pushed open, moaning from arthritis in its hinges. The timid robin flutters away, each wingbeat reverberating through the air to create a soft rumbling. Welcome to the garden.

Intricate plots of seedlings push forth from the Earth, woven amongst patches of dirt and weeds, delicately swaying in the breeze, creating a surreal quilt surpassing the second dimension. I slowly walk across the grass paths, savoring each step among the culmination of our work. The grass abruptly transitions to earth which gently depresses as I waltz across the tilled ground towards my objective. I pull my yellow leather gloves from my back pocket and little bursts of dust and dirt liberate themselves from the mass of their caked-on brothern. As I split my hands into them the crust continues to crack resembling the ground to my left that offers the beans a chance at life. I grab the black tarp and gently pull it off the pile. Some of it disintegrates in my hands into black ribbons. A myriad of organisms come to life as the sun pierces into the once darkness. Prehistoric insects scuttle across the compost into crevices and earthworms writhe, like oiled spaghetti in a dish, before descending into the mass of decay.

I grab my manure fork, my senior by countless years, rust encasing each tine creating a brilliant gradient of rich brown tones before fading into a brilliant sheen at each tip. A quick thrust into the compost produces fleeing arachnids and a cacophony of crackling branches. Each matted scoop permits a resounding thud as it slowly fills the wheelbarrow. Again, again, and again. The air looms with the aroma of old leaves, rich earth and the slightest hint of fungus. I spear the fork back into the earth; it juts out like a piece of giant silverware in a chunk of chocolate cake. I tilt the wheelbarrow forward as it releases a quiet grown, vocalizing my sentiments as well. I push the load across the lawn with little resistance to its final resting place. I tip the wheelbarrow forward, rocks clatter against the metal and the compost scrapes out onto the ground. A collection of neat nodes of compost create an invisible line. I spread it in rows, new beds for the future. In the distance David pulls the cord to bring the tiller to life. A quick snap pierces the air proceeded by a flurry of colorful commentary. I look up from my work to see David scolding the tiller as if it were a misbehaved child. The simple task of setting up planting beds had no been brought to a screeching halt in only 15 minutes.

Stress vs Pressure

Merriam Webster defines these as:

Stress: n. A physical, chemical or emotional factor that causes inner strife, unrest or imbalance
Pressure: n. The constraint of circumstance; the burden (or oppression) of physical or mental distress
I believe these two words have always seemed synonymous. So much so that I used them interchangeably. As an individual immersed in the culinary industry for nearly a third of my life I can attest to an environment laden with both. But it is crucial to note that, while similar, these terms are different. Stress derives from the unknown or uncontrolled, exterior factors, although not exclusively, whereas pressure is the application of these factors, that can occasionally create stress.

The expectation to complete a task quickly, safely and comprehensively is a mainstay. “Sense of urgency”, as it is more often referred, is a characteristic demanded from anyone in the food industry. This creates situations or tasks where any participant will feel pressure. But when verbal abuse or physical provocation are applied as a motivator or disciplinary action, the same participant will feel stress.

One of the greatest satisfactions for any chef is executing a service with no mistakes But, just like pitching a no-hitter, the level of synergy and teamwork must be superb. Chefs who have experienced and executed such a night knows the feeling. Metal is clanking, burners roar; in some kitchens the communication between stations can be almost deafening, while in silent kitchens, the work and focus creates its own noise. The pressure to execute a perfect night is perceived by all participants. To some its anxiety, others adrenaline, but at the core each person is striving to achieve the same goal. Inevitably there will be mistakes and its how they are handled that really matters. A plate comes back, the steak is undercooked: the pressure is felt by that section to, with a sense of urgency, produce the same another dish to correct the issue. But when the section is hounded for the steak by anyone – who more than definitely understands the reality of cooking food and its time constraints – the pressure dissipates and is replaced by stress.

It’s seldom that anyone pushes as hard as possible. Some strive to do their best but when the pressures on, even their best can be outclassed. It’s one thing to, through various practices, push someone to give more. It is something else entirely to attempt the reach the same conclusion by creating stress. I previously believed that I enjoyed stress; the butterflies in the stomach, mind accelerating to its terminal velocity of processing, and heartbeat racing, sometimes far above healthy levels. But after much consideration I realized i was wrong. I really enjoy those sensations but they really are derivatives of pressure. I don’t enjoy frustration or anger, spite, contempt, toxicity, and pettiness: all components of stress.

These observations aren’t only relevant to the food industry; I have concluded they apply, more generally, to life. Next time you encounter a situation that makes you feel pressured, persevere. But recognize when pressure – and that fine line quickly fades – becomes stress. I believe pressure really comes from within and stress comes from external factors. Pressure can be used as a tool or motivator, but stress is nothing more than a distraction – a distinction that I have failed to make for a large part of my life, but now recognize and won’t forget.

We will the blood to stop.

Today I completed my second day of Modern Banquets Cookery.  The class has been pretty simple but my performance has been suffering.  I will get into the reason behind that some other time.  While prepping bok choi for service today I overheard the brief conversation that really helped lighten my mood.

A student went up to the chef and asked whether we had a first aid kit.  The chef responded with yes and then followed up with “Why, what did you do to yourself.”  The student responded quite simply and to me it made perfect sense: “I cut my self on a piece of plastic hanging off of the salad spinner.”  Now to the chef this was hilarious.  “What?” he asked, “How did you cut yourself on the salad spinner?”  At this point the entire kitchen was aware of what was going on.  “I could understand that you might cut yourself on a knife or something sharp, but a knife?”  At this point most people had pulled away from their assigned task and began to drop eaves on the situation.  The student struggled to explain that he had not actually cut himself on the flat plastic, but rather a piece that was hanging off.  The chef was in such shock that he was still hung up on getting cut on the spinner.  This exchange went back and forth about one minute.  “We never bled in front of a chef, when I was a student if we got cut, we would will the blood to stop.”  This was Chef’s closer and the student walked away, somewhat embarrassed.

I really do enjoy the chefs at this school.  I have never found one to be to aggressive or harsh.  In fact I feel like I would enjoy working with some of the more cruel chef’s at this school.  Today I must have heard the salad spinner reference from chef at least 5 more times. I have heard so many horror stories about chefs when they first began teaching at this school.  Two of the chefs that I had were known as some of the toughest chefs in the school.  I really feel like I might have missed out on a few things because the chefs have a limited spectrum of behavior that they must teach with.

Modern Banquets class has been good otherwise.  The information is more cooking based rather than technique based.  Each day that we come in, it is treated more like a real kitchen.  We have no real technical instruction.  We are expected to know the material and be able to competently cook.  The chef is there to instruct us with different methods to use when cooking on scale larger than a la carte.  He also is there to make sure that we don’t burn down the school.

So far I have had one major mistake.  Day one when we made rice pilaf myself and my teammate neglected to follow the proper ratio for making the dish.  After clarifying with the chef that the ratio I had for pilaf was correct, I began to make the rice according to his ratio.  About 45 minutes later, double the normal cooking time of pilaf, my team removed, from the oven, a mass of starchy goo that looked no more appetizing than the white rice that you see at the end of Chinese buffets.  We had to redo the rice and as a result lost a portion of our grade.  When we made our rice the second time, I made sure to use my ratio, the one I was taught in Fundamentals.  It turned out perfect.  Because of the rice fiasco our group did not finish on time and lost more points.  I have been keeping a record of all of the mistakes I have made in the kitchen and so far it is quite impressive.  This rice issue wasn’t really my fault.  I guess I should have followed my intuition.  Stay posted.

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