The Best of Hells

Today concludes week 1 of my culinary externship.

Damn, what a week.

With class work completed, I must now log 300 hours – with a maximum of 30 per week credited-of externship in order to graduate.  That can occur via a number of scenarios.

My classmates have a marginally sane approach to this process.  Find a kitchen job, have a supervisor sign off for paid working hours.  No problem.

I, alternately, said “I WANNA GO TO THE FARMS, AND A RESTAURANT, AND HELP PREP FOR A SUICIDE MISSION OF AN EVENT! THIS WILL BE GREAT!!”   (Without the yelling, my little-kid-enthusiasm just won’t come through – )

To translate: I opted to be part of a group helping a premiere Texas chef prepare for and operate a food booth at Austin City Limits Music Festival, as well as work on a local farm and in their kitchen, and log hours in a restaurant. 

I am officially a crazy person.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday I logged a total of 27 hours helping unload, prep, cook, process, package and reload for storage nearly 2700 pounds of chicken and 3000 pounds of pork. 

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Other students also helped make sauces and dressings.  We seasoned, roasted, sliced, chopped, vacuum sealed, and cleaned in 8 to 12 hour shifts.  It was insanity personified.  But we were so badass further prep was unnecessary and so cancelled.  The next 2 weekends I will work the festival booth in 8 hour shifts. 

 

Monday and Tuesday I returned to Bernhardt’s Fruit and Veggie farm. There, I helped make kim chi, sauerkraut and kale chips,mail (689) then picked, sorted, washed and packaged produce of all kinds to ready them for today’s farmer’s markets.  Next week, we make jellies.   Again I say, consider the long hours of hard physical labor that go into every piece of produce you buy at a local market, into every dish on every quality menu you see.  I assure you, your dollars are well spent.

 

Though not yet assless, I have worked enough to be well on my way.   I am bruised, cut, blistered, and moving like an octogenarian in the mornings.  Week 1 is behind me.  And you know what?  THIS IS GREAT!

My Farm to Table Education – Part 2

Dear 2 readers,

Well, BALLS.

I am officially a horrible, neglectful blogger.

This was supposed to be done 4 days after my last post.  Sigh…

I make no excuses. It is what it is.

 

Week 2 of off-campus Farm to Table took me back to Elgin, first stop – RRR Farm.

RRR is adjacent to the expanded Green Gate Farm land, but brought a very different experience.

Not only do they grow and sell seasonal produce and have pigs and goats, but also cows, more farm dogs, and kittens. (Oh my goodness, the kittens… be impressed, friends.  Though tempted, I did not bring a single furry friend home. A classmate, however, did). While there, we spent plenty of play time with the domesticated lot, helped load a stubborn pig for processing, dug holes, erected fence posts, and planted fruit trees.  In 5 years, we’ll be able to return to see them bearing as a result of our labor.

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Bernhardt’s Fruit and Veggie Farm was our 3rd/5th day of the week exposure.  It is a well oiled machine, having been established over 30 years ago and kept in the family.  Their organization is impressive, as is their on site commercial kitchen, in which they concoct a myriad of wonders to sell at farmer’s markets, including sauerkraut, kim chi and melon sorbets.  Those of us who spent time with the Bernhardts were lucky enough to get the best of both worlds.  We harvested, weeded and planted on the farm, and then helped prepare for market in the kitchen.  It was a joy both days. 

Worth mentioning – it was here I saw my first live scorpion, clear and tiny, lurking in holes I’d already dug and seeded bare-handed.  I am not generally squeamish about much, but can I just say EEK!

I have since arranged to spend some of my externship on this farm as well.

  

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I rounded out the week at Yegua Creek Pecan Orchard.  The scenery was breath taking and heart breaking in turns, as they recently lost 1500 trees and have planted 200 new ones.   This was the most diversified business of the bunch.  They not only harvest and sell pecans, but also market pecan oil, pecan coffee, wood and wood work items (cutting boards, wall hangings, etc), and a host of pecan food stuffs.  A minimal amount of limb clearing occurred, but most of my time there was concentrated in their kitchen, making champagne pecans, pecan cookies and experimental recipes.  I learned to sort pecan halves, which is easier than it sounds, but done by hand for quality control.  Think about that next time you price local pecans…

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After we returned to campus, we hosted a Round Table luncheon, the menu for which we composed and prepared from an assortment of food generously supplied by the farmers.  Over lunch, we talked about our experiences, the pros, the cons.  We got feedback from those farmers who were able to attend, and gave it to the people at school who coordinate the block.

For me, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience, on which I plan to build over the years.   The relationships between farmers and cooks directly impacts the quality of the food at some of your local restaurants.  I encourage all of you to contribute a little forethought and research to your next food outing.  Consider trying somewhere that uses locally grown ingredients.  Compare their wares to the usual, convenient chains.  Maybe you’ll be able to tell the difference – especially at peak season, in which we are sadly NOT currently.  Maybe you won’t.   Either way,  the purposefulness matters, if only to know you tried.  And report back!  Comment!  Let me know!

 

For now, tell me, where and what are you eating lately?

 

 

 

My Farm to Table Education – Part 1

My decision making when it came to culinary school hinged widely on our current educational block.

 

The farm to table experience is built into our curriculum with intent to provide first hand knowledge of how our food is (and should be) grown and produced through local sources.  We spend time in small groups visiting and working on several farms and with other growers and providers for three weeks in order to gain said information.

Our first three days were spent on campus in the school’s garden, doing maintenance work, and also field tripping to a nursery to learn more about seasonal planting.  After that, a few of us helped cater a tasting event at Fall Creek Winery – where some of the finest grapes and wines in Texas originate. 

 

 

 

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Last week, I was first assigned to Coyote Creek Farm, where the focus is on chicken egg production and organic farm feed. The last trait I previously associated with chickens was – well – being chilled out. But these are some seriously chill foul. Wouldn’t we all be if our houses were cleaned and our every need met (including misters for the houses) daily?
While there, we helped feed and water chickens, gather eggs, and then clean and package them. It was an interesting process, to say the least.
Fun fact: Chickens sunbathe.
Let me just say YES free range, organically pastured eggs truly are the best. Next time you buy that 1.99 carton at Walmart, think about how robbed you are, though you may not know it. (My commercial vs organic egg experiment may be a future post).
I’m not sure we ever met Lala the Llama’s approval…
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Our next stop was Skinny Lane Farm, a small, young operation where they are still learning daily how to best practice organic, seasonal farming. It is currently the end-of-season for everyone, so our time was spent harvesting the remains of summer and readying the land for fall and winter. We weeded, seeded, tilled (OK, I personally didn’t till…) and planted, sprayed and cleared, and started seedlings after playing in prepared dirt. It was a fun time both days.
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To round out the week, we spent a day on Green Gate Farms, planting seedlings and playing with the pigs. The farm is located on what we were informed used to be a "hippy compound." They have farm dogs, chickens, goats, a horse, and lots of pigs. Babies, wild pigs, big gigantic breeding and larding pigs. I fell in love with one, but my classmates wouldn't help me put her in the car.

Bessie:
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So far, it’s been an education no classroom could ever provide. Another edition when all is said and done –
Have a great week out there, everyone.

Spring on the Farm… sort of

2013-03-23 18.25.24March winds have been lusty and persistent in central Texas, persuading the 80-to-90-something degree temperatures into more bearable shapes.  Those same winds seem to have lifted me out of the house for the entirety of yesterday.

After a perfectly executed croque madame brunch I wandered to a nearby farm stand, but resisted impulsively snatching up every beauty within sight.   I scouted out a new park for potential canine companion quality time.  I sat outside with a good cup of coffee and a fascinating book.  (I’ll pass it along when I’m done).

I refused to acknowledge the existence of outstanding household tasks and obligations.

In the evening, I attended an after hours concert at Springfield Farms, an award winning urban farm established in the midst of commerce, clubs and interstates. 2013-03-23 18.23.47

The parsnip bisque and informative sessions alone would have made my day. Throw in the Zenith Quintet, – brass and keyboard – white-lit trees and an intimate crowd, and spring has truly arrived.

 

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They played a widely varied selection, from Piazzola to Rogers and Hammerstein, from Vivaldi to Aerosmith.  They love what they do and appreciate their audiences.  And they are truly gifted musicians. 

Earlier in the week I revisited Evangeline specifically for The Peacemakers.  The ensemble includes an upright bass, harmonica, drums and revolving guitarists.  They play the ever living hell outta some blues to a small crowd of regulars whose camaraderie is contagious. Trust me, the best bands you’ve never heard of are playing in dives all over America.

 I may never fully outgrow my snarky tshirt, converse phase. But then, I was the kid who enjoyed going to symphony performances too.  And that weird mashup is part of what makes life good for me.   I’m in a perfect place to take advantage of it. 

I’ve been heavily lamenting the news of the Athens-based band Modern Skirts going their separate ways. But life happens and sprouts in its many directions whether or not we approve. They are immeasurable talents, and I wish them the best. If you aren’t familiar, here’s a sample:

Take on the week! And tell me, what is it you’re listening to lately?