Wednesday August 26, 2015
I will never take an onion for granted again. Although they seem like a commodity – always available in the grocery store, a staple in my kitchen, and with the exception of a few seasonal varietals like Vidalias, they are never out of season. The care and skill needed to provide continuous onion production requires experience of the sort that is only earned from very hard work.
Dale Gillis, owner of Gillis Farms in Arrey, New Mexico schooled me in onion farming. On his 4000 acres farm he grows onions and chili peppers (referred to as chilis). Only 1000 acres are dedicated to onions as Gillis Farm practices traditional crop rotation. One of the common onion diseases from overplanting is called pink root. To avoid pink root, Dale rotates his onion crop with corn, sudan grass, and alfalfa which all clean the soil, replenish nutrients and keeps his onions disease-free.
For the most part onion farming is labor intensive. Dale’s fields are hand-weeded and harvested. During harvest, Dale employs up to 500 people. The only insecticide used is to combat onion thrips, which is the major insect pest of the onion. Weeds are solely managed by hand.
Gillis Farm is in the high desert of New Mexico where winters are mild and summer temperatures average around 100 degrees. While this sounds harsh, it is ideal climate for onions. Dale claims that wet, damp conditions produce root rot. In fact, at harvest time, Dale likes it hot and dry.
Dale plants 40-48 different varieties of onions, mostly yellow with some whites and reds as well. The varieties are selected to spread the harvest over as long a period as possible to insure continuous production. Dale begins harvesting on May 20th and continues until late August. Onions planted on September 15th, for instance are harvested mid-June. Dales’ 1000 acres produces 1.2 million 50 pound bags of onions. That’s 60 million pounds!!! Dales’ onions are sold directly to the supermarket chains including Walmart.
Dale proudly holds the mantel of his farming roots. His great grandparents arrived in New Mexico from Germany in 1918 and began the farm, which has been passed down to his grandparents, his parents and now he, and his brother and sister, with the 5th generation coming on strong. His son and 2 nephews are beginning to work on the farm and absolutely love it. In fact, Dales’ son is getting a degree in Ag Business.
When I asked Dale what this new generation can bring to the farm, he said “a knowledge of computers and technology.” Dale also emphatically stated that you cannot learn onion farming in college. He said, “Only experience teaches you to grow.” That experience is what provides the knowledge to see a field of onions that needs zinc or iron, or has thrips. Experience provides that critical wisdom necessary to successfully grow onions on the scale that he does. Dale’s best advice to future farmers is to do the work. “Without a work ethic, it’s worth nothing. Put your head down and run with the ball.”
When I asked Dale if he ate onions, he chuckled and actually said, “ Not many! Because at harvest time everything smells like an onion – my truck, my bed, my body.” He does, however, eat a fair amount of chilis. His favorite meal is steak with green chilis. He shared that growing up and even now, meals were simple – grilled meat, grilled onions and chilis, with peach cobbler for dessert. Another favorite was called Green Chili Stew, which was a stew of steak pieces, chilis, potatoes and onions. His mom served it with a flour tortilla.
Here is a great recipe for grilled burgers and onions from the National Onion Association.
A bit about Dale’s Chilis
New Mexicans are very particular about their chilis. You are either a red or a green chili person. Dale is a green chili person!
One curious fact about the chilis Dale grows is that 20% of them are grown for color. Who knew? The chilis grown for color have no heat index. The red is extracted as a powder and is found in cosmetics and even cheese.
The other 80% of the chilis are all dehydrated and sold in small packages. They range on the heat scale from mild to extra hot.
The chili growing offers excellent crop diversification for Gillis Farm. As one might imagine, weather is either a farmer’s friend or foe. Having more than one crop is a hedge against the potential ravages of weather.
I would be remiss if I didn't share a New Mexican Chile recipe. Click this link for Green Chile Stew from the Santa Fe School of Cooking.
When I finished my interview with Dale, I just sat for a few moments. I knew I had spoken to a hard-working, salt-of-the-earth gentleman – of few words, yet quite communicative. His years of hard work, generational knowledge and love of farming produce the onions I have so cavalierly stored in my onion basket. Now when I hold that sphere, I honor it as it exists in all its perfect splendor because of people like Dale Gillis. Thank you Dale!
Enjoy Dale on Heirloom Meals Radio too!
Disclosure: I was compensated by the National Onion Association for this post. All opinions are my own.
Monday August 24, 2015
I know I have been a bit silent over these last few months.
If I told you I have experienced the gamut of emotions, would you believe me? Well, of course you believe me. Why would I pose the question?
So here’s how I have been rolling….
Happy and Grateful
I spent the first 2 weeks of May at a writers residency program on Martha’s Vineyard. I decided to write a food memoir. Yes. All about ME! It is quite a journey going back in time and recalling scenes of your life. It is very healing and very powerful. I cannot wait to share it with you. Of course it’s a memoir with recipes!!
Anxious and Sad
Hanging over me and our family during the spring and early summer was the knowledge that my dear sweet sister-out-law had stage 4 breast cancer. While I prayed my heart out, held onto OPTIMISM like it was the last ticket out of town, I knew it wasn’t good. We hosted a magical family reunion late May for Madeline. She was radiant, happy, and beautiful. I thought I was witnessing a miracle – that she had turned the corner. The truth of the matter is I was witnessing a miracle. It’s called living every moment. Or bringing the people you love together to share our love for each other. Or providing the space for lasting memories.
Five weeks later. Madeline passed away. I carried her pain in my body. I sobbed. I walked around like a zombie. I tried to comfort Jim. And then mustered up the energy to have another family reunion. An old-fashioned Irish wake with the casket right here in our home. It was an honor to offer Madeline one last night at Boulderwood. Her send off was beautiful. It was pure, unadulterated love. Love that emanated from Jim’s heart, my heart and all who loved Madeline. The priest’s eulogy was powerful. He said God is in all of us. I believe that. We meet people that give us what we need at the moment we need it. This is how God works. This is how the universe works.
Madeline handled her illness with such grace. In her last group email, she said it best: “I continue to enjoy life, but will admit it is difficult to think in terms of no timeline. Although it is not real for any of us, I think we all live with the expectation of another day and old age. To plan even a few months ahead not knowing what will happen is different to say the least. Probably a good reminder for all of us to enjoy the days we have and focus on the important stuff. As you can see, for me the important stuff is family and friends.”
RIP sweet Madeline.
I am alive. Ergo I live. In the midst of the sadness, I launched another dream – The Heirloom Meals Recipe Project – an 8 week online class where I coach the participants to write their family food narrative, collect and or write all their recipes, collect old photos and take new ones and end up with their own hardcover, color heirloom family cookbook. The pilot class was extraordinary. Here’s one of the testimonials:
It has been said that because so much of our lives today are documented in technology that we chance to loose our history and stories in these devices. Carole Murko has offered a gift of leading us through the writing of our families’ food history and memories so that they are not lost and can be passed down for generations to come. She takes you on a beautiful, emotional, supportive and loved filled journey that is a gift unto itself. With her warm and creative guidance you create together a memoir that you never realized was inside of you waiting to be shared with those you love. This is a gift to give to yourself, to a friend, to family. Everyone should experience this journey with Carole Murko.
Debby Edwards, Chicago, IL
Thank you Debby for that! Your words went right to my heart. Please check out the class. I would love to have you among us!
Over the Moon with Happiness
When I talk about Jim, I have referred to him as my husband. Well, because he is my spiritual soul-mate and common-law husband. But truth be told, we are not married. On August 4th, my birthday, he asked me to marry him. I. AM. ENGAGED. WAHOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I am like a little girl. Giddy. Elated. Thrilled. I have always wanted to be married. It was part of my little girl and twenty-something dream. Jim’s commitment to me has validated and honored me. I felt an energy shift in my body – at the cellular level. And in perfect heirloom meals style, he gave me his mother’s engagement ring. I will treasure it forever. It is so much more meaningful than some huge showy diamond. I always said that when I found the right man, a Cracker Jack box ring would do.
For whatever reason, this is the time and place in my life I am meant to be married. I get to plan a wedding my way! My parents get to see me marry the love of my life. It is perfect timing.
I will be sharing the wedding journey from designing my own dress to figuring out how to do all the food and be a relaxed and rested bride!! EXCITING!!!
I am blessed. To have a life so full.
Thank you all for being part of it!!
PS No post is complete without a recipe. I am hanging onto summer with dear life. Here’s my signature summer salad recipe!
Saturday August 22, 2015
Flour, Too: Indispensable Recipes for the Cafe's Most Loved Sweets & Savories
We all have that favorite spot -- the breakfast place around the corner, the coffee shop up the street, the bakery with the awe-inspiring case of baked goods staring back at you. Joanne Chang’s Flour Bakery + Café in Boston is all of these, but it has established itself beyond sweets and breakfast confections alone. Flour, Too is Chang’s second cookbook, following the success of her first, Flour. Though recipes categorized under “Sweets” and “Desserts” dominate its pages, the cookbook spreads its focus to the savory as well. With recipes like the Classic Split Green Pea with Smoked Ham soup or the Mushroom and Leek Lasagna with Creamy Béchamel, you quickly gain the sense that Chang isn’t trying to overwhelm your sweet tooth, but rather provide you with the comfort and nourishment of food.
You can mimic the most loyal of Flour’s customers and use the book to follow the daily experience of the bakery. Start with a stack of CJ’s Spiced Banana Pancakes, which are perfectly moist and not overly-sweet from the natural flavorings of the fruit and are matched with the underlying smokiness of allspice and black pepper. A drizzle of maple syrup as the accompanying image suggests is all you need to make resisting these fluffy delicacies impossible. You can take the savory route for lunch with an updated American classic -- the Applewood Smoked BLT. Chang complements the salty-sweet bacon with the added pepperiness of the arugula. Dinner can become a more complex affair, beginning with the colorful Heirloom Tomato Salad, stepped up with feta, watermelon, and a delicious Red Wine Vinaigrette. The main dish options include a Slow-Baked Atlantic Salmon with Tabouli, whose inventive cooking method gives the fish, as Chang puts it, “a delicate, buttery texture and flavor.” End the evening just as you began, with a small, two-bite French Macaron. Crisp and light, satisfyingly sweet.
Flour, Too invites us to sample a sugar-specked brioche and instills a desire to test the elasticity of Chang’s focaccia dough. Every page is a representation of the ease and contentment enjoyed in passing the time at one of the Flour locations. Use the book to bring to your kitchen the iconic smells and tastes of the bakery -- a place many people already consider home.
Monday August 17, 2015
What a summer! I promise to write a blog post and share the gamut of experiences that rolled through my life. Suffice it to say, I have been sad, afraid, elated, and now proud. Proud to announce the official launch of the Heirloom Meals Recipe Project. The pilot program exceeded my wildest imagination. We wrote, we shared, we cried, we laughed, we bonded, we created. Our final products are getting their finishing edits and then everyone will have their very own heirloom family cookbook. The program was satisfying on so many levels!!
Here is the link to everything you need to know. (I am working on creating a new section for workshops but for now the blog post will have to do!!) I hope to see you in the September 10th class or the others I have scheduled.
Also - check out my recent interview with Dale Gillis as a result of working with the National Onion Association!
Saturday August 15, 2015
Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes
Food memoirs are among my favorite genres. They connect food to our relationships, experiences, and lives. Elizabeth Bard follows this in her first book Lunch in Paris, by interspersing the memories of falling in love with a charming Frenchman, Gwendal, with traces of her culinary journey marked by recipes of her past and the ones she gains along with embracing a new culture. The dishes are inspired by the fresh ingredients from Parisian markets; they contrast the fussy, complicated reputation of typical French fare. This focus allows Bard to not only write about international cuisine, but about international living, and how she discovers French culture from her time around the table, whether it be during a meal, at a market, in a restaurant, or only in a single taste itself.
The recipe for Gwendal’s grandmother’s, Mary Simone’s, tabouleh, shows the memoir’s function as a family recipe book, giving the tricks of culinary techniques passed down through generations. The secret to this dish is replacing the bulgur with couscous, lightening the salad and mixing well with the acidic, slightly sweet taste that Bard confessed to me she loves. This coming-together of the savory and sweet shows the gustatory connectivity of food, but in Bard’s descriptions of food and the narrative that follows it, we discover the French culture alongside her own discovery of their passion for cuisine: for good, simple food done right.
Her new book Picnic in Provence, came out this spring. I can’t wait to read it and share my thoughts with you!
Saturday August 08, 2015
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
In Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl has the reader hooked by the first page, working through the inedibility of her first food description: “... a squishy brown square of meat surrounded by a sticky stockade of potatoes that might have been mashed last year. The wrinkled gray peas look as if they were born in a laboratory test tube. The roll glows with such an unearthly lunar yellow that I can feel its chill before my fingers even touch the surface. The lettuce in the salad has gone brown at the edges, and the tomatoes are too tired to even pretend that nature intended them to be red.” Reichl, however, moves quickly past this vignette and the immediacy of the food itself, and delves further into the book’s primary focus: the importance and challenge of anonymity in being America’s most well-known food critic.
She reflects upon her hilarious and heartfelt experiences in some of the greatest restaurants in the world, all the while trying to navigate the intersection of public and private life. She supplements this narrative focus with deliciously elegant but approachable recipes, giving the reader a greater understanding of the techniques and flavors Reichl puts to paper. The book’s final recipe, “Last-Minute Chocolate Cake” speaks for itself, with the spice of the unsweetened chocolate, the intensity of strongly-brewed coffee, and the contrastingly sweet bitterness of Grand marnier, all it needs is “a scoop of vanilla ice cream on each slice” to result in something worth writing about.
From her writing, it’s obvious that Reichl is a profound appreciator of food, and a lover of the joy it brings to her everyday life: “My yogurt was nestled into a bag, waiting to turn into aushak, and all around us were sausages and pastry, lollipops and spices, chicken and cheese. Any world that contained all this, I thought surveying our loot, was a very fine place. I felt reinvigorated, alive, optimistic. The thought of getting back to work suddenly seemed like fun.” Because the reader is introduced to this perspective so early on, we ask the same question Reichl tries to understand herself: how do you tell someone what they should know about a restaurant, and more importantly, the food they will eat there, if everyone is lingering behind your back watching you do it?
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