Tag Archives: Humble Heart Farms

Serendipity under a Strawberry Moon

 Bird song and the comforting sounds of barnyard animals filled the late Spring air as the first fireflies of the evening began to twinkle in the woods of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge amid the backwaters of the Tennessee River.

 A group was gathered for dinner under the open pavilion at 1818 Farms (www.1818farms.com) in the northwest corner of the quaint and historic town of Mooresville, Alabama (pop. 54), in Limestone County between Huntsville and Decatur. In the wildlife refuge, a canoe glided by in the distance, adding a magical moment to the dinner; I hoped the canoe party looked to their right and saw our gathering beneath the Italian globe lights and flaming torches so that a glimpse of the farm through the trees might add to the magic of their journey at dusk.

It is the rare weekend when I am not traveling so when my friend Anne contacted me on Thursday to see if I might be interested in attending the 1818 Farms “Farm to Table” dinner on Friday, it was serendipitous that I had already made plans to stay at home.

1818 Farms covers three acres in tiny Mooresville. It is owned and lovingly tended by Natasha and Laurence McCrary and their family. A stroll through the property includes visits with chickens, cats and kittens, goats, pigs, sheep, and a Great Pyrenees dog to guard the assorted livestock. All of the animals seem incredibly content. Anne and I visited with three tiny kittens; one was designated to remain on the farm and the McCrarys were looking for good homes for the other two.

The farm is beautifully curated and a sense of calm begins at the front gate. Everywhere one looks there is a place to rest the eye. The animals are friendly and accessible, the raised garden beds are lush and filled with bloom and beauty, and the woods and wetlands of the wildlife refuge provide the western boundary beyond the border fence. A mellow instrumental duo provided music at the edge of the pavilion throughout the evening.

This was my first time to attend one of the 1818 Farms dinners. The meals started a few years ago in collaboration with Chef Jake Reed, the charismatic owner of the charming Albany Bistro, a great neighborhood restaurant in Decatur (www.albanybistro.net). Reed is winding down the Albany Bistro business (which now is open for catering and special events only) and has recently opened the new Table in the Garden eatery (www.tblrestaurant.com) at Huntsville Botanical Gardens.

“Chef Jakob” is a committed devotee to the “farm to table” philosophy and every meal I had at Albany Bistro is evidence that he practices what he preaches in creative and dynamic ways. His modern takes on local ingredients are fresh and innovative but he frequently acknowledges the enduring lessons he learned in the kitchens of his mother and grandmother.

Passed around hors d’oeuvres included fried green tomatoes with a horseradish sauce, wonton cups with herbed chevre and summer vegetables (the cheese was from Humble Heart Farms www.humbleheartfarms.com in Elkmont, my favorite goat cheese purveyor), and possibly the best sausage balls I have ever tasted.

After the assembled guests were seated and the meal was introduced by Natasha and Chef Jakob, the first course of a summer vegetable tart in a puffed pastry crust was presented. It was followed by green bean and potato salad with lemon terragon vinaigrette.

The main course was grilled chicken with a balsamic peach glaze, grilled peach, and arugula. For dessert, Chef Jakob presented a bacon and bourbon cupcake. As shocking as a bacon and bourbon cupcake might sound, the result tasted like a fairly traditional cupcake but with interesting notes and hints throughout; I especially liked the crisp bacon crumbles on the top.

Chef Jakob created a lovely dinner that was reserved and memorable – unmistakably fresh, local, and seasonal. The presentation and ambience of the event were lovingly executed.

By the end of the meal, the twilight had turned to deep darkness and the animals were settling in for the night. Natasha was gathering up provisions for a couple who had decided to adopt one of the kittens and photographs were being taken to commemorate the adoption. As we stopped to check in on the roosting chickens in their spacious coop, Natasha passed. “They don’t realize how lucky they are,” she said of her menagerie.

Indeed, I felt lucky to be able to visit their home for a few hours. During the dinner, I had noticed a full moon beginning to peek through the canopy of trees. Native Americans refer to the first full moon of June as the “strawberry moon.” That strawberry moon shone brightly as I hit the highway for home and a restful sleep.

 

 

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Pesto from “The Watercress Capital of the World”

 Inspired by my recent experience at the “Friends of the Café” dinner helmed by Chef Scott Peacock at the Alabama Chanin factory in Florence – and by the wonderful salad featuring fresh watercress that was served at that meal – I decided to make something that has been on my kitchen to-do list for a while.

It has always pleased me to know that Huntsville and Madison County, where I have lived for over 14 years, was known as the “Watercress Capital of the World” before Wernher von Braun and his team arrived from Germany after World War II to accelerate the space race and Huntsville dubbed itself “Rocket City.”

It’s becoming harder to find reminders of the pre-NASA days here in 21st century Huntsville but the watercress connection has intrigued me ever since I learned about it when I first moved to the area. Although more watercress was distributed from the Madison County area than from any other place in the nation until about 1960, there is only one major distributor of the crop left, in New Market, just north of Huntsville (www.bwqualitygrowers.com).

Buoyed by my Alabama Chanin experience, I decided to go on the hunt for fresh watercress – which is no easy task, even in the former watercress capital of the world.

After locating fresh watercress at a local market I set about to make a watercress pesto. I love pesto and usually keep enough basil plants around the back yard in season to make a batch of basil pesto now and then throughout the summer.

I looked at watercress pesto recipes and they mostly seem to follow the basic basil-based recipe, just substituting watercress for basil. For this latest experiment, however, I wanted to use fresh watercress and as many local or Alabama-sourced products as possible. I took down the basil pesto recipe that lives on my refrigerator door and began to doctor it up.

In addition to the watercress substitution for basil, I used pecans instead of pine nuts; I used pecan oil instead of olive oil. I kept Parmesan cheese for the texture, but split it with Humble Heart goat cheese from Humble Heart Farms (www.humbleheartfarms.com) just up the road in Elkmont. The result was a wonderful fresh pesto with a rich but milder flavor than more traditional basil pesto.

It’s been good with everything so far. Here’s my recipe:

Watercress Pesto

3 cups lightly chopped and loosely packed watercress
¼ cup chopped pecans
4 cloves chopped garlic
¼  cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup crumbled plain goat cheese
½ cup virgin pecan oil
Juice of ½ lemon

Mix and blend ingredients together into a finely textured paste. Yields about 2 cups of pesto.

The Elusive Scott Peacock

 Every Friends of the Café event at the Alabama Chanin (www.alabamachanin.com) factory in Florence is special. I have not found its match in any other similar event I have attended. The sense of community and camaraderie is unparalleled and once one attends, one is hooked. When I was leaving the Factory this past weekend, Natalie Chanin, who hosts the dinners with her amazing staff, asked me what had been my favorite dinner so far (since I’ve attended most of them). I just started naming names and had no clear favorite. There is no clear favorite; each has been singular and memorable.

The April 15 dinner last week was especially noteworthy since Chef Scott Peacock was in the kitchen. In 2010, Peacock, the James Beard Award-winning Alabama native, left his position as head chef of Watershed in the Atlanta area, moved to Marion, Alabama, in the middle of the Black Belt, and became, for many who knew of him, a bit of a mystery man.

I first heard that Peacock was in Marion when a friend in Greensboro told me that Scott had contacted his mother to be interviewed for a documentary project about older Alabama cooks and their foodways. Over the past few years, I heard less and less about that project and wasn’t even sure if Peacock was still kicking around Marion. He has been a columnist for Better Homes and Gardens and I know he might occasionally be sighted at events such as a Rural Studio supper in the Black Belt.

His cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking (Knopf, 2003), is a collaboration with Edna Lewis that is full of wisdom, information, and fresh takes on traditional recipes. It is an indispensable part of my kitchen library. Ms. Lewis, a Virginia native and expert on Southern food, gained fame as a cookbook author and in the kitchen at several New York restaurants. She and Peacock became close friends and she lived with him in Georgia where he cared for her in the last several years of her life.

In fall 2016 Natalie Chanin’s online journal did a piece on Scott Peacock’s experimentation with indigo and other plant-based dyes at his Marion home base and ended that fascinating conversation with the information that she and Peacock would be hosting a Friends of the Café dinner in Florence in spring 2017. Proceeds from the event would benefit Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org), one of Alabama Chanin’s favorite causes.

On the afternoon of the event I met my friend Cindy in Cullman and we made the trek to the Alabama Chanin Factory on a beautiful Holy Saturday evening in the Shoals.

As the passed hors d’oeuvres began to make the rounds among the assembling guests, there was much excitement about the varieties and tastes on display. In fact, the entire meal was a lesson in simplicity and finding the best flavors in the best ingredients. Most importantly, allow those ingredients to speak for themselves.

The hors d’oeuvres included iced oysters on the half shell with Edna Lewis’s spicy dipping sauce. The dipping sauce was simple and elegant with salt and vinegar, green onions and shallots, garlic, peppercorns, and parsley. It was phenomenal, as were the Gulf oysters.

Other hors d’oeuvres included fresh radishes with a bowl of whipped butter for garnishing. One of the diners asked if it was a “Southern thing” to eat buttered radishes; I wasn’t aware that it was but after tasting those, it is now – at least at my house. Beautiful and delicious halved soft boiled eggs from Cog Hill Farm were passed around with a garlic-parsley sauce.

Beside the radishes were razor-thin slices of Pineywoods beef sausage from the Black Belt. The Pineywoods cattle are an endangered breed directly descended from cattle left on the Gulf Coast by Spanish explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries. A renewed effort is being made to locate the breed, which lived for centuries in the wild, and replenish them (www.pcrba.org).

The final hors d’oeuvres to be passed were tomato and goat cheese toasts that had the crowd exclaiming. The goat cheese was rich and buttery and one of the servers said it was from Humble Heart Farm in Elkmont (www.humbleheartfarms.com), I regularly buy my goat cheese and other products from the Spells at Humble Heart and was delighted to see them represented at this very special dinner.

As the diners were seated for the meal, the three-course menu sounded deceptively simple: salad, stew, and dessert. The simplicity of the menu allowed the fresh and carefully mixed ingredients to take center stage and the flavors built on one another as a seemingly simple meal created a complexity of tastes and discoveries.

The salad featured fresh watercress that Natalie Chanin had gathered from just down the road earlier in the day. The watercress was mixed with a number of other foraged greens dressed in a simple but perfect vinaigrette. It was noted later that Scott Peacock had assembled each of the several dozen salads himself.

The second course was a steaming “Straddle Stew” with chicken and ham broth, onion, garlic, peppers, turnips, carrots, tomatoes, Carolina Gold rice, peas, and collards. It was a hearty and delicious stew accompanied by servings of Peacock’s mother’s “hot water cornbread.” The recipe for Dorothy Peacock’s hot water cornbread is in The Gift of Southern Cooking and I look forward to making it soon. The stew was paired with a Z. Alexander Brown pinot noir; I knew the label but did not know until this dinner that the proprietor of this winery is Zac Brown of Zac Brown Band fame (www.zalexanderbrown.com).

The dessert course was a delectable strawberry shortcake with soft whipped cream. Sugared strawberries were generously paired with sweet cream biscuits topped with crushed sugar cubes and covered with a spectacular slightly sweet whipped cream.

The final offering was coffee and “three kisses goodnight” as the diners were presented with small plates overflowing with tiny tea cakes, benne brittle, and tiny chocolate truffles.

Finally, Scott Peacock emerged from the kitchen and shared thoughts and charm with the assembled diners. He introduced the staff that had helped him in the kitchen and talked about the good works of Heirloom Harvest (www.heirloomharvest.org), Will Dodd’s non-profit that cultivates a better and more sustainable connection between Alabama farmers and Alabama restaurants and consumers. Heirloom Harvest had gathered much of the food we consumed that night.

It turns out that Scott Peacock is not elusive at all. He was warm, funny, and giving as he met with diners and signed cookbooks at the end of the night.

In the past, I have praised Natalie Chanin and her cultivation of community. In gathering my thoughts about the Scott Peacock dinner, I realize how much she also cultivates education – about purveyors, products, movements – that her diners might not hear about otherwise. Heirloom Harvest. Cog Hill Farm. Pineywoods cattle. Z. Alexander Brown. These are things I had to research as soon as I got home from Florence.

The 2017 Friends of the Café season is underway with four more events to come between now and October; I am happy to be able to participate.

Eat Fresh, Eat Local

IMG_1570  Somewhere in chef Jeremiah Tower’s very entertaining memoir, California Dish (2004), he repeats the snarky comment made by a French chef about the cuisine of Alice Waters, the 1970s pioneer in the California Cuisine movement: “That’s not cooking; that’s shopping!”

I love that quote and am wholeheartedly among the growing movement of people who know that the freshness and quality of the ingredients we use are just as important as what we do with and to those ingredients. This used to be the position of tree-huggers and the fringe but the crowds flocking to local farmers markets are evidence that the philosophy is now mainstream and still growing.

It’s not food snobbery. It’s just learning something anew that previous generations understood and accepted as a way of life.

My Grandmother Harbison always had good food warming in the oven and usually there was a pot of fresh-made vegetable soup on the stove. In addition to that, there was always a fresh cake of cornbread in an iron skillet and more often than not a cake or dessert of some kind. She continued cooking even when her health began to limit what she was able to do.

I always knew that whenever I dropped by my grandmother’s house one of the first questions would be “Are you hungry?” Even if I wasn’t particularly hungry, Grandmother would lay out a table full of food within minutes. And I would always find an appetite for it.

It used to amuse me when I would drop by and Grandmother would have plenty of food in the house but would say “Would you rather go pick up some ‘tacahs’?” referring to a Taco Bell down on the highway.

“No — I’d rather eat a bowl of your vegetable soup,” I’d reply. Sometimes she would insist on riding with me to pick up a bag of tacos anyway – neither she nor my grandfather drove. I realized that while fast food was nothing novel and special for me and I was craving home cooking – real food, my grandmother had been cooking for family and crowds for most of her life and rarely went to a restaurant or hamburger stand. It was an enjoyable change for her to have a fast food taco now and then.

Today I came in from work and surveyed my supply of food. It’s a hot and rainy day and I was in the mood for a salad. The first thing I spotted was a Cherokee Purple tomato on the kitchen counter that I picked up at Greene Street Farmers Market at Nativity a few days ago (www.greenestreetmarket.com). It was getting a little ripe and I needed to eat it before I traveled for the 4th of July holiday in a day or two.

My friend Judy Prince from Paint Rock Valley told me a few years ago that she planned to “bring back” Cherokee Purples, an heirloom tomato with a bruise of purple skin and a deep burgundy fleshy meat. Based on recent observations at a variety of farmers markets, I have to say to Judy, “Mission accomplished.” Practically everybody with tomatoes at the market had some Cherokee Purples in the mix.

With my Cherokee Purple as the centerpiece, I pulled out some lush green leaf lettuce from the local J. Sparks Hydroponic Farm (www.jsparksfarms.com), washed and tore it, and made a crisp bed of lettuce. I chopped up a purple bell pepper from the organic RiverFly Farms in Paint Rock Valley (www.lifeasweknowhim.com) and a pretty baby onion from another Greene Street stand. Fresh basil and mint came from pots in my back yard and I crumbled the “Garden Blend” of goat cheese from Humble Heart (www.humbleheartfarms.com) on top of the mix. I finished it off with salt and pepper and drizzles of a good olive oil and balsamic vinegar that I have on-hand.IMG_1846

It was a lordly summer lunch made even more special by the fact that I know each purveyor (except for the oil and vinegar) by name and had bought all of the ingredients directly from the farmers who grew them. As we “re-learn” the benefits and pleasures of fresh local food, we are making a connection with generations before us who took fresh food from the area for granted. How lucky they were, if they only knew.

A few weeks ago, on Father’s Day weekend, my family decided to forego the hassle of a restaurant and eat a farm-fresh Sunday dinner at my parents’ house as a joint celebration of Father’s Day and my mother’s birthday a couple of days later. On Saturday morning, I went to my personal favorite farmers market, Pepper Place Market in Birmingham (www.pepperplacemarket.com), and surveyed the prospects among the booths.

Pepper Place sprawls along the site of an old Dr. Pepper plant that has been transformed into a design center and dining district. Pepper Place Market takes over the exteriors on Saturdays from 7:00 a.m. to noon and has over 100 vendors in three distinct areas. The Market started in 2000 and has gotten a little large and crowded but I find that if you get there by 8:00 a.m. it’s easier to navigate and there are fewer baby carriages to maneuver around. I came away with tomatoes, okra, corn on the cob, and lady peas and made the next day’s meal of creamed corn, fried okra, and the lady peas cooked in chicken broth. Mother cooked a pork roast and cornbread. Once again, it was an exceptional meal which mostly bypassed the middle step by buying directly from the growers.

Sometimes, at the various farmers markets I attend, I look at the people around me and wonder if all the trendy people are an indication that the slow food and farm-to-table movements are merely a current and growing trend; I wonder if we will all go back to opting for “convenience.”

I think not. I think that as we have begun to re-learn food and as more and more local chefs and restaurateurs serve local food from local purveyors that is superior in quality, we will opt for the smart way and support the movement as we see how it benefits all of us in so many ways. Unless I am actually in California, I vow to never again eat another grocery store tomato from California that was chemically treated and travelled across the continent while infinitely better tomatoes were on a vine just steps away.

IMG_1569American Farmland Trust (www.farmland.org), the people responsible for those “No Farms No Food” bumper stickers, is doing good things in support of local farms. Their website includes great information about local farmers markets nationwide. Visit one soon if it’s not already a part of your routine.

The Paint Rock Valley and “Green, Green Grass of Home”

IMG_1474  It was a soggy Earth Day 2015 event at Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville on Sunday, April 19. It was raining when I arrived shortly after the noon opening and the early attendance was sparse with some exhibitors either absent or late for set-up.

IMG_1473Even so, my favorite local goat cheese purveyor, Paul Spell of Humble Heart Farms in Elkmont (www.humbleheartfarms.com), was open for business and busy giving out samples. I bought my usual, Humble Heart’s Tuscan blend, and a package of the French blend. At another booth I picked up some herbs – chives, mint, and rosemary – to continue to pot up this year’s herb garden in the back yard. I already have some mint and lots of basil growing back there.

Despite the rain, I hit a few of the tables and booths that were set up and had a chat with Steve Northcutt of the Nature Conservancy. One of the reasons I made a special effort to get to the Earth Day event this year was because my friend Judy Prince from Birmingham planned to be there to recruit support for her initiatives and clean-up projects serving her native Paint Rock Valley in northeast Alabama along the Paint Rock River’s winding path to the Tennessee River. Because of health and the weather, Judy was not able to attend and in her absence Steve was handling a drawing for a Paint Rock River canoe trip. I am planning two canoe trips for this year — the Paint Rock River and the Cahaba River.

IMG_1483After leaving the Earth Day event, I wandered through the park, winding up at a scenic overlook that also has a small museum and memorial dedicated to the Civilian Conservation Corps of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. At a time when Alabama’s Republican elected officials seem to be on the verge of closing down a number of state parks, it was a reminder of how much this part of Alabama owes to FDR and his Depression-era recovery policies. Every town in the Tennessee Valley should have a monument to Roosevelt.

As I left Monte Sano, there was a break in the rain and more people seemed to be arriving at the Earth Day festivities. Since the Paint Rock Valley was on my mind I decided to make the short drive to Jackson County and drive through the upper Paint Rock Valley for a while.

The Paint Rock River meanders for about sixty river miles from its origins in northernmost Alabama to where it enters the Tennessee next to a spectacular bluff known as Paint Rock. I saw the Paint Rock on a boating day trip along the Tennessee from Guntersville Dam to Decatur a couple of years ago. It is only accessible from the river and is worth checking out if you get the opportunity.

IMG_1506My Sunday drive, however, took me into the upper reaches where the headwaters come together and form the small but ecologically significant Paint Rock River and its surrounding valley. Due to recent rains and storms, the river was flowing fast with a lot of mud and debris and was beginning to overflow its banks. There are a number of places along the two-lane highway through the valley where the road goes alongside the river. The area is sparsely populated and there are abundant farmland and animals grazing in pastures along the river’s course. IMG_1486

Occasionally you pass through a more settled area. The towns of Princeton and Trenton huddle close to the road. My afternoon drive took me as far into the valley as the town of Estillfork. One of the things that struck me along the drive is the way most of the houses, stores, and churches are right on the road, even where there was space to build farther back.

My friend Judy Prince is a psychotherapist based in Birmingham but her roots are in the upper Paint Rock Valley and in Estillfork, where her family ran a country store for decades. Judy has been active with various projects to enrichen the valley and preserve and pay homage to its beauty, community life, history, and heritage. It is through visits to the area in conjunction with Judy’s Paint Rock Valley History Project and Connect UP (CUP) initiatives that I have been introduced to the upper Paint Rock Valley. There are multiple goals, part of which is building connections and community with the area’s Appalachian and Native American cultures. “Building community” has become a theme for me lately, it seems.

Judy has been active in using a “rolling store” to dispense heirloom Cherokee Purple tomato seedlings and seeds. The rolling store idea is in honor of her father, Pete Prince, who once operated a rolling store in the valley in addition to his stationary store in Estillfork. IMG_1491

Judy has ongoing plans for a History Store and Working Farm as a wellness and healing center to serve the community and people in need from the community and beyond including those with physical and mental challenges, veterans, the elderly, and youth. One of her goals is to utilize the projects to connect residents of the area with those from outside the community and to increase interaction and exchange from diverse communities. Judy speaks passionately about all of these projects and her enthusiasm is contagious. She wants to bring more visitors into the valley while also enabling those in the community to venture forth and seek broader exposure to other options of doing and living.

IMG_1500Highway 65, the curving road that follows the Paint Rock River through the valley, is named “The Curly Putman Highway” in honor of songwriter Claude “Curly” Putman, the Paint Rock Valley native (Princeton) who wrote “Green, Green Grass of Home.” That song, written in the 1960s, was an often covered tune that was a country hit for Porter Wagoner and later an international hit for pop star Tom Jones.

As I drove through the Paint Rock Valley with Curly Putman’s plaintive song in my head, I was reminded of a road trip I took many years ago through another mostly rural area of central Alabama. I was with a friend who was visiting the area from Los Angeles. At one point, I veered off the main road to show her a quaint small town that was just off the highway. She was quiet and gazed out the window as we drove down the street that ran through the middle of the town, past neat little houses and a docile town square surrounded by a few small local businesses and a few shuttered storefronts. After a moment, she turned to me and said, “Why would anyone choose to live here?”

I was caught off-guard and didn’t have a ready answer at that moment but I have often thought about her question over the years. Why does anyone live anywhere? And how many of us have the luxury of choosing where to live? I have lived all over the country and I don’t think I ever really got to choose. You live where you were born and then you live where life, family, education, career, circumstances, and serendipity take you.

There are people who live in the upper Paint Rock Valley. Some stay there their entire lives and some leave as soon as they are able. Some return at some point and some never come back. Others come and stay or come and go. For some it is “home” and for others it’s just a place along the road. The country is full of communities like those along the Paint Rock River. They deserve our discovery, our attention, and our respect. They can learn from us; more importantly, we can learn from them.

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(For more information about Joys of Simplicity Wellness Adventures and the Connect UP Program, and for contact information for Judy Prince, check her website at www.tinyurl.com/lutybme).