The Fat of the Land

Month: November, 2012

Dairy Alchemy

milk jars

Where I grew up, cow’s milk is a cultural icon. Country roads oscillate between corn fields and cow pastures, the neighboring state fair displays busts of its royalty carved out of butter, folks drink 2% with supper, grocery stores rarely stock fewer than twenty varieties of cheddar. In the Midwest, milk is a birthright, and its venerated status seeps into the consciousness of all who live there. A pharmacist I met in eastern Oregon who had gone to school at UW-Madison confessed to me that he fell so in love with the cheese, he has a particular creamery’s cheddar shipped to him each December in such quantity he can freeze enough for almost the whole year.

Despite being surrounded by Holsteins throughout my youth, it wasn’t until earlier this year that I tasted fresh milk. I was on a tour of a small dairy learning about pasture rotation, when I had my first sip. I was hesitant. I’m not entirely sure how I expected it to taste, but the creamy freshness that greeted my lips took me by surprise. Milked that morning, it was light and sweet, scented delicately with the forage of the fields we had just wandered through.

I became a subscriber of their milk-buying club and now pick up a gallon of this impeccably produced milk every two weeks. The cows they raise are Jersey, a breed whose digestive system is capable of absorbing higher quantities of beta-carotene from their feed than the more common Holsteins, resulting in golden-hued milk. Not being the milk drinker I once was, I realized soon that I would need to learn how to manipulate and preserve this nectar or lose it to souring.

Transfixed by the 3-inch layer of orange-yellow cream that rests on the top of the milk, my first fascination was with butter. I slowly skimmed the thick, silky cream into a separate jar, which I let sit over night, a process called ripening (cold cream won’t separate into butter). In the morning, I simply beat it with my hand mixer, like making whipped cream. As the cream started to hold its shape, I kept mixing, the whipping of the beaters disrupting fat globules, eventually allowing them to stick together in visible chunks. What you get when you go past whipped cream is a nearly invisible transformation, when the puffy whipped cream suddenly becomes a slosh of butterfat and buttermilk. I drained the buttermilk off, folded in salt, and shaped my first pat of golden Jersey butter.

I’d expected to be pleased by the butter, and it is gorgeous stuff, smooth and flavorful. I examined the buttermilk and took one careful sip. Unlike the sour, thick buttermilk I use occasionally in baking, this was thin and sweet. Store bought buttermilk is cultured, somewhat like yogurt, to give it the sort of acidity that activates baking soda to leaven breads and biscuits.  Heated up and poured into coffee, my homemade buttermilk makes a delightful café au lait.

Recently, I made my first rennet cheese, one that uses the enzyme rennin to coagulate the casein in milk, leaving behind a high pH, sweet tasting whey.  Cheeses that use an acid (like lemon or vinegar) to coagulate the milk separate the proteins differently and expel a lower pH, tangy whey. Called sour whey, it is useable in bread baking, as a soup stock, even to soak oats overnight (makes the creamiest porridge I’ve tasted). Sweet whey is another creature entirely—cheesy, slightly syrupy, subtle but lingering sugar.

I had heard a rumor that ricotta, more commonly made by adding an acid to whole milk, was originally a bi-product of sweet whey. As I looked into the translucent liquid my cheese curds left behind, I didn’t see how it could produce much of anything. The instructions I found said simply to heat it. As the whey neared its desired temperature, the surface began bulging, and from its center emerged little white granules, a dust storm of ricotta curds, that multiplied as the heat increased. At 200° F, I turned off the flame and let the whole pot settle a few minutes before pouring its contents into a butter-muslin lined colander. After draining for ten minutes, the muslin cradled a sweet, pillowy ricotta, needing nothing more than a drizzle of honey to become a decadent dessert.

I’ve always known butter, yogurt and cheese. But before these spells were adapted to an assembly line, they were performed at home. Every day, milk was transformed by skillful hands that could reach beneath its satiny white curtain to draw out an eternity of flavors, a chain reaction of product and bi-product, because it had to be. Before cold storage and pasteurization, we were compelled by necessity to unlock milk’s secrets: liquid into solid, fragile to sturdy, something from nothing.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, November 29, 2012)




In the forest this time of year there is a quiet frenzy. Animals are searching for provisions, gathering and storing—on their bodies or in caches—the calories needed for winter. These creatures have finely tuned senses, intuitive knowledge of what they must find and how to find it. Their whole day is spent this way, covering and recovering ground, in a perpetual hunt.

Not so long ago, our species was out there with the best of them, hunting, fishing, and collecting our food. Until the last century, foraging was a commonplace supplement to the produce of a garden, the occasional goods from a store. All ecosystems yield a unique bounty. Each village and tribe carried the knowledge of its preferred wild foods through generations. As our cultures have shifted in the wake of modern technology, this sort of wisdom is falling out of sight, marginalized to the realms of old ways or hobby.

As a species, we have succeeded brilliantly in securing dependable sources of nourishment through agriculture and food science, but we have never let go of the wild ones. Foraging is our oldest and most basic food tradition, and in the fabric of our beings we know this. Many children may first experience the thrill of foraging as a hunt for dyed eggs. They know what to do, and although unintended, this simulation teaches foraging’s basic narrative: strategy, deftness, secrecy and delight.

Food procured this way is imbued with a charge of life. My first true foraging experience was for morel mushrooms in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. We had no strategy or deftness, just a tip from a coworker for where to go looking. We walked through the woods for two hours, becoming unsure, in the process, of everything we thought or hoped we knew about morels. We started to give up, quicken our pace, make tails for the road back to the car, when my foot nearly crushed the first wild mushroom I ever harvested.

I knelt down quickly, as if it could run away, and sliced it free from its anchor. As I looked up to continue on, I spotted another a few feet away. I paused to take in my surroundings and saw that the little clearing where I crouched was filled with morels, poking out of grassy banks, perched amidst conifer roots. They sat perfectly still, trying to get my attention with their silent, piercing stare. And I felt suddenly that they had been watching me this whole time, never lowering their gaze until I met it. It was an inviting feeling, one of connection, as if receiving a blessing.

Two things about foraging are counter-intuitive to contemporary American culture: going off trail and eating from the forest. Wild foods come without labels, as raw as food can be. Until the forager has picked and eaten enough to know these foods as friends, there is always ambiguity—hours spent flipping through field guides, debating ID features.

            It was leaving the comfort of the trail, though, that startled me the most. I grew up in the Midwest, a place short on wilderness. Although I spent my early days wandering the fields and forests at the edge of a small Wisconsin town, I had never encountered the vastness of a place like eastern Oregon. As we hiked trails in the Wallowa and Blue Mountains, I peered into those wild forests as one would animal enclosures at the zoo.

When, lured by mushrooms, I took a bold step into them and began learning their patterns and landmarks, I was transformed—my ears were always perked, my eyes scanning the forest floor, my mind busy cataloging everything it saw with a pleasing rhythm. I found in those woods a quiet space that cradled any thought I put into it, and in the practice of foraging, a kind of meditation. Now when I step off the trail, it is like diving into a pool: a place that stretches and strengthens parts of me that go underused elsewhere.

We no longer require wild foods to sustain ourselves, but that is no excuse to lose these skills, to let those inexplicable flavors go untasted, to forget what sort of place the wild pantry is or what richness we live amongst. Find a friend who will take you. Read as much as you can. Start small; be safe and treat the forest with care, but go! Teach your children, share with your neighbors. Help our species keep hold of this gift.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, November 15, 2012)


My first farming experience was with garlic. The woman I worked for grew organic seed garlic, which means most of the bulbs we tended and coddled were never tasted by anyone. Despite its utilitarian destiny, this was, and still remains, the most perfect garlic I have ever seen. Dozens of varieties passed through our hands, and at the cleaning table I studied each for its unique qualities. Some of the bulbs’ papers were painted with purple streaks, some with pink or brown. Many were dull white, though a special few varieties had papers that seemed to glow, shimmering like the surface of a pearl.

Not long before I began working on the garlic farm, I was reading the newly released Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and learned that garlic is only harvested once a year. The fact astonished me at the time. Garlic is something I eat nearly every day, that mesmerizes me each time I add it to hot oil, but I was completely clueless as to who it was. I knew it only as an ingredient, not a living thing.

My first month there, we worked the rows on our knees, pulling weeds. We would make our way through the acre or so of garlic only to have to start again at the beginning. The soil had a lot of clay, so it was sticky and tight when wet, nearly impenetrable when dry. Even so, the work was made light by good conversation, the chirping of frogs in a nearby pond. Every so often we would look up from the microcosm of weeds to a panoramic view of the mountain valley we lived in: the valley’s bowl crowned by a stretch of mountains blanketed in conifers, a few distant, rocky peaks.

Long before we harvested our first bulb, the garlic began its offerings. First came the garlic shoots, young plants I found sprouting in the compost pile. I plucked a bundle of them to take home. Like scallions, we minced them into sautés, sprinkled them on eggs, stirred them into quiche. Their flavor is softer than scallions, green and herbal with a background aroma of garlic without the bite.

Next were the scapes, leafless stems that arose from the top of the plant, at the end what looked like a large flower bud. As it grows, a scape twists around making one curly loop and another, before uncurling and stretching straight again. This peculiar dance gives this category of garlic (the “hardnecks”) its scientific name, Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon, coming from the root word ophis, Greek for snake. We cut these serpent scapes to promote bulb development, filling cartloads of them that we dumped in the compost. I took bagfuls home to experiment with, making a very strong pesto that I found too overpowering to eat a second time, and mellower sautéed stalks, something like a garlicky asparagus.

As the bud-like tips at the end of the scapes burst open, they revealed an aggregate globe of tiny white kernels. My farmer friend explained to me that they are called bulbils, and are essentially like the cloves of the garlic bulb—each containing the same genetic material as the parent plant, rather than seeds, which are the result of pollination. I took some from varieties that had larger bulbils, about the size of a small chickpea, to peel and brine in vinegar. The results looked like tiny pearl onions and tasted fantastic on a salad or just right out of the jar, but the process of peeling all those tiny things took over an hour, so it remains my first and only attempt at garlic bulbil pickles.

By the time harvest came, the soil was dry and hard around the bulbs. Some rows we felt more like we were chiseling than digging, breaking clods of dirt in two to reveal a perfect garlic bulb inside. As we lifted them from the ground, brushed dirt from their roots, and loaded the garlic into carts, we stirred up a pleasing aroma: the humus and minerals of soil mixed with the softest scent garlic can make, not unlike when it’s sautéing in the pan but with more perfume and freshness. This nectar lingered in the air, filled the barn where we hung them to cure, faded finally as they dried so that when it was time to clean and grade, the bulbs hardly had a scent at all.

Garlic came alive for me that summer, as other plants and vegetables have since then, each with its unique cycle, its story. I grow a patch of garlic every year and wait eagerly for the moment of unearthing, when the hidden bulbs are made visible and the aroma of soil and garlic fills the air—its ephemeral delicacy.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, November 1, 2012)