It’s what’s for dinner

Last month, en route to Washington, I spent a couple of days at the Midland ranch near Boulder, Wy.

To say that Lou Arambel is a polymath would be an understatement.  Fifth-generation rancher, pilot, avid outdoorsman, professional party-starter (I’m not joking – that was actually his first job during college), volunteer EMT, proficient in animal care, fluent in Nepalese, educated in New Zealand, Lou defies easy categorization. He was gracious enough to let me tag along on two cattle drives – and, as is his wont – to task this total rookie with real responsibility.

His crew this summer is made up of two women (one from California, one a Wyoming native), a guy from Chihuahua, and a New Yorker who had never been around a horse or cow in his life before coming to the ranch. As tends to be the case when a capable, determined person is given a challenging task and invested with confidence, the city boy from Queens rose spectacularly to the occasion – I had no idea that he hadn’t been cowboying his whole life.

Herding cattle across the vast plains of southern Wyoming, I gained some insight into why I prefer eating beef to any other cultivated meat. Midland’s cows, although they’ll probably end their lives in a grim feedlot somewhere, at least will have spent most of their days ranging free through a wild and beautiful landscape. The pigs and poultry who are born and die in windowless factory farms aren’t so lucky.

To be clear, I have intensely ambivalent feelings about animal agriculture; I eat meat sparingly, and when I do, it’s almost always game or home-grown. But these cows – and the people who move them from place to place, working twelve-hour days in the saddle, returning home completely worn out, only to get up at 5 am the next day and do it all again – seem to lead a pretty wholesome life.

Sorting cattle

Break time by the sheep wagon

Tomato time

Summer is tomato time.

I will not eat a tomato out of season. Consider the February tomato: could any food be as sad? Hard, mealy and pale, flavorless and forlorn, a tomato in winter hardly deserves the name. More than berries, more than peaches, tomatoes are the fruit I long for during the cold months.

A ripe tomato fresh from the vine bears  no more resemblance to its insipid supermarket cousin than does a chicken nugget to a whole roasted, free-range bird. Its flesh bright and yielding, its fragrance as intoxicating as any flower, its juices filling your mouth with tangy sweetness, a real tomato is the stuff of fantasy – and for me, an object of worshipful devotion.

It’s worth the wait.

No uniform ripening gene here!
Just-picked cherry tomatoes at Songhaven farm

Dinner for one: homemade bread, mayonnaise, sharp cheddar, tomatoes

Samphire

I love samphire. Also known as sea bean, pickle grass and sea asparagus, this succulent grows in salt marshes, on beach outskirts, and on wave-spattered cliffs.

Salty, crunchy, like nothing else on earth, samphire is the key to a few of my most piquant memories. Summers in Ireland were a definite highlight of a childhood spent in grey London suburbs, where concrete and brick kept plant life sternly in check. Although England is a small island, I don’t remember ever going to the coast. No; during my childhood, the sea was Ireland, and Ireland was the sea.

Green, effervescent, lonely, ancient and mysterious in a way that the parts of England I knew never could be, the Irish countryside was a  chimerical land of centuries-old graveyards, huts dug into hillsides, and  the tangy, dark-grey smell of peat moss burning. I galloped through the surf on a borrowed Connemara pony named Rocky, costumed myself in pungent ribbons of seaweed, painted with pigments I made from crushed flowers, charcoal and dirt.

And, of course, I ate. Tart and vivid red currants straight from the bush, prickly gooseberries, cockles and clams dug from the sand at low tide – and samphire. There is an unmitigated joy in eating something picked by one’s own hand, all the more gratifying if that something grows wild. Eating cockles steamed on a bed of freshly harvested samphire was a joy that became part of my constitution, informing and solidifying a tiny part of my best self.

Recently, walking with a friend on the beach in Kingston, Washington, I discovered samphire growing. I delightedly harvested handfuls of the crisp green stalks, already thinking about how I would cook them.

Here’s what I did:

Potato-samphire salad

Six large Yukon Gold, or other waxy boiling potatoes

8 oz samphire (or roughly two handfuls)

Two cups cherry tomatoes, halved

Quarter cup fresh herbs, torn or chopped (I used oregano and basil; parsley, dill, tarragon and chervil would work too)

Two tablespoons coconut oil, melted (you can also use good olive oil)

Sea salt and pepper

Boil the potatoes until tender, reserving the water. Cut into half-inch cubes. Blanch the samphire in the potato water, and shock under a cold tap to stop the cooking. Cut into one inch lengths. Toss the potatoes and samphire with the tomatoes, herbs, oil and salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm or cold.

I also made a samphire frittata, with herbs, garlic and feta. Bread, just-picked salad  greens, a bottle of cold and austere (and cheap) Chablis.

It was good – even better for being outside, on a fine evening, in good company.

Far from the sea and even farther from the untamed Ireland of my childhood, I’m already dreaming of my next taste of samphire.

Why, yes, that is safeway brand “refreshe” fizzy water. I like it very much.

Briny luxury

I recently had the pleasure of taking a long road trip, from my home in Southwestern Colorado to the Seattle area (via Wyoming, Montana and Idaho). One of my primary goals was to eat as much seafood as I possibly could – and I more than fulfilled it!

My first meal out was at the Four Swallows, where I indulged in Kumomoto oysters, Penn Cove mussels with roasted tomatoes, smoked paprika and Spanish sherry, and scallops with Pancetta and pea vines. That’s right – three separate sea creatures, all in one meal!

During my trip I also managed to eat salmon, more oysters, and too many fin-fish to name.

The culinary highlight of my trip, however, was a gloriously barbarous crab feast on the beach. Intent on eating crab (it was the seafood I most coveted when imagining a trip to the coast), I made it to Central Market’s seafood counter right before it closed, where the surly attendant’s attitude softened considerably when I made a proper demonstration of gratitude. Two pints of perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes, explosively sweet and tasting of  sunny contentment, creme fraiche gelato, a baguette, Greek olives, a bottle of Prosecco and a salad of just-picked greens rounded out the meal.

We carried a heavy cooler down to the beach in the growing darkness and found an amenable log to sit on. Heedlessly cracking crab legs with my teeth, tearing into the sweetly briny meat, indulging in rare and precious tomatoes and olives, guzzling Prosecco, my fantasy was realized.

On the eve of my departure, I decided I wanted crab again. I arrived at the seafood counter, only to find out that there was a crab shortage; there was no crab to be had.

I think it was better that way.

My first wedding cake

On Saturday 25, 2012, my friends Mark and Michelle – the creative, productive, magic-making force behind Songhaven farm – were married in a beautiful ceremony on their land in Cahone, Colorado. I had the unique pleasure of making their wedding cake.

Michelle requested a carrot cake, with raisins, walnuts and cream cheese frosting. I adapted my favorite carrot cake recipe for high altitude (I bake at around 7,300 feet), using raisins soaked in Earl Grey tea. All the carrots were from the farm, and I added cardamom and ginger in addition to the cinnamon the recipe calls for. For the frosting, I made a white chocolate-cream cheese buttercream from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible, which I modified to include orange zest.

The day before the wedding, which also happened to be a harvest day on the farm, Michelle and I picked zinnias, cosmos, borage and nasturtiums to decorate the cake. Although I’d been obsessively imagining the cake for weeks, trying to picture how I would decorate it, I decided to simply “let the flowers talk to me”.

And talk they did! As soon as I began decorating the cake, inspiration struck.

The cake turned out looking – and tasting – wonderful. Most importantly, the bride was happy!