AUTHOR: Julia TITLE: Tales from the Farm - Late April DATE: 5/14/2008 08:10:00 AM ----- BODY:
The Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay converge in Southern Maryland’s St. Mary’s County, and is home to Even’ Star Organic Farm. Brett Grohsgal, a former chef and former boss of yours truly, owns the farm with his wife Christine. In the summer on this fertile 100-acre parcel, they raise 25 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, as well as chilies (including my favorite – peachy-mamas), cucumbers, four varieties of watermelon and okra. They sell their produce at farmer’s markets in DC and Virginia, and to restaurants in the DC metro area. I treasure my visits to the farm because of the nonpareil produce and meats. The cooking is simpler because we cook mainly with farm products and other local produce.

Now that I’ve left Sebastians, I finally have time to visit the farm, and reconnect with (of course, Brett, Chris and Allesandra, but also) where our food comes from. I’ve been visiting the farm for as long as they’ve lived here – over 10 years – but it seems I am always learning and discovering something new.

The farm is “working” three seasons – harvesting the last of the winter crops, coaxing the spring crops and getting the summer crops in the ground. In terms of salable produce, the winter crops trickled down – mostly lettuces and braising green. The spring crops have not yet reached peak – the strawberries are only yielding a pint or two a day. Instead of gleaning the crops for maximum yield, Brett and his crew are working feverishly to get the summer crops in the ground.

Timing the planting of the summer crops is crucial. Last year, the farm experienced the worst drought on record, with less than 1” of rain from April 15 to October 1st. The effects were severe at best, but would have been tolerable if the crops had been in the ground long enough to establish their root systems. This year, Brett’s not taking any chances.

With a soaking rain forecast for Sunday, the mad dash begins to prepare the land. The clover that grew through the winter – 3 feet tall with red flowers -- will now be turned into the soil nourishing it with nitrogen and other critical compounds. When the rain stops, the soil will be tilled and is now ready for planting the next day. First crop in: Sweet Potatoes.

The other trick in timing is the temperature. In Southern Maryland, the last frost can be relatively early, in March or April. And every year, Brett experiments with getting a crop of tomatoes in the ground by mid-April so that he can be the first to market with ripe, field tomatoes in June. This week, the temperature may drop to 38F at night, which is cutting it close: the tomatoes seedling were just transplanted 5 days ago – but should still be fine for the tomatoes. A second round of seedlings in the green-house will put Brett at the market at the same time as other farmers… and these are his fail-safe.

End of the Season Cannellonis

With a twinkle of summer on the horizon, I’m less abashed using up my canned tomatoes from last summer.

12 Pasta Sheets cut into 4” squares
3 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups homemade ricotta
¼ cup parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons sliced garlic
1 pound braising greens
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon chopped shallots
¼ cup white wine
2 cups home-canned (preferably smoked) tomatoes
Salt, pepper and lemon juice, to taste
Cream and extra parmesan if desired.

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta sheets for 3 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold water, and drain well. Toss with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Set aside.

2. Heat a large skillet over high heat. Add remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add sliced garlic. When the garlic starts to brown, add the green. Cook, stirring often, until the greens have wilted but are still bright green. Remove from pan to cool. Coarsely chop.

3. Make the filling by combining the ricotta, parmesan and braised greens. Season to taste with salt, pepper and lemon juice.

4. In a sauce pot – melt butter over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add wine, and cook until evaporated. Add tomatoes and simmer for 10 minutes. Puree. Season to taste with salt, pepper and lemon juice (and a touch of cream if desired).

5. Roll pasta sheets with about 2-3 tablespoons of the filling. Put sauce in the bottom of a 9” x 13” pyrex dish. Place rolled cannellonis top. Drizzle cream and/or parmesan on top if desired
Bake for 30 minutes at 350, or until bubbly delicious looking.

Pasta dough:
1 lb. semolina flour, plus extra for dusting
4-5 large eggs as needed
1 tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. salt

1. Make a well in the flour, and add 4 of the eggs, olive oil and the salt.

2. Beat the eggs with a fork, gradually bringing in the flour from the sides of the well, until the paste has thickened enough so the liquid will not run onto the counter. Switch from a fork to a pastry cutter. Bring all the flour into the already wet part and cut through the dough several times until it is evenly moistened. Start kneading with your hands until the dough forms a ball and looks homogenized, about 8 minutes.

3. If the dough becomes stiff, and refuses to bend, rub in a little of the remaining egg. If the dough becomes too moist, add a bit of the flour.

Work the dough by machine:
4. Divide the dough into 3 balls, and let rest under a damp towel for 20 minutes. Start working the dough through the pasta machine starting with the widest setting. After running it through the machine, fold it into thirds, and run it through again. When the dough is smooth, run the dough through the machine through successively smaller settings. The dough will stretch out, and be rolled very thin.

5. When you have achieved thin sheets, you can let the dough rest for a few minutes before filling or cutting

Ricotta
1 quart whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
4 lemons, juiced
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a non-reactive 2 quart saucepan heat milk and cream to a boil and immediately remove from heat. Add juice and salt, stir well and let sit for 20 minutes. Line a conical sieve with cheesecloth or coffee filters and pour through, allowing the whey to drain out. Let stand at room temperature for 2 hours.

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