"What do you do?" I used to dread this question. I wasn't fulfilled with how I was spending 40+ hours of my week, nor was I really sure how I…
“Farming is a strange combination of forced patience and instant gratification,” is how local farmer Tara Rockacy explained her endeavor, and she would know! The lady has been moving and hustling, expanding, growing and evolving with each season, from CSAs to goats emerging from new barns to mingle with the city’s top chefs. The “forced patience” aspect reminded me how a farm must work in tune with the season and the elements. Unlike a business startup, there can’t be a complete change of direction mid-season. There can’t be a last-minute decision to focus on flowers because that’s what the market wants. That decision has to be planned and put in motion long before the competitive scrambling to catch a bridal bouquet. That’s why a bloom, at long last, is so instantly gratifying.
Nonetheless, my dreamer, imaginative, event designer, stylist side gets swept away with the farm’s full potential, until a brief reality check finds me ensnared in visions of long tables, farm-fresh bouquets, wedding vows amidst the basil, banjo nights, yoga by the hoop house, drawing classes with edible still lifes, herbalism workshops, etc, etc, etc. The “forced patience” is remembering the main goal for this season: to repair the soil, grow food and feed people. Everything else will come in its due time. Due time means starting small: one picnic table, four friends, and one enjoyable evening of just being on the farm.
“This is the first time I’ve had people on the farm and haven’t put them to work,” the Urban Farmer joked, and though the work is rewarding, just sitting, laughing and eating sausages was a welcomed change of pace.
Starting small, or simply starting, can be such a hurdle, so this cookout was a much needed reminder for me to slow down, enjoy this season, and take advantage of the here and now. I should probably plaster that reminder all over my apartment: Start small, start small, start small!
Bricks that once clad homes on these vacant lots, were born again as a our fire pit, where we grilled sausage and smoky potato wedges with herbs. The Urban Farmer picked the salad straight from the ground- a flavorful mix with bitter, citrusy notes and crunch- a far cry from the plastic container of greens in the produce aisle. The watermelon was juicy, the cocktail was refreshing, the view of the city was stunning, and dessert was just the right mix of sweet and tart.
While my head will probably always spin with ideas and grand dreams, I’ll take plenty more of these small, first steps and remember to appreciate patience, albeit forced, and cherish the ensuing moments of instant gratification!
Whole Wheat Lemon Mint Olive Oil Cake & Sage Lemonade Cocktails
About These Recipes: Olive oil, lemon juice and lemon zest make this a moist, spongey cake fit for vegans and dairy-loving fools alike! Serve with homemade whipped cream, organic vanilla bean ice cream, or vegan whipped coconut cream. The cocktail is a loose recipe for a fruit-infused punch. Free of precise ratios, it’s an effective way to serve cocktails to multiple people. You’ll need a gallon jug or pitcher.
I worked in a European-style bread bakery for a spell, which meant I had access to one loaf per day of the breads that sent immigrants clambering to the bakery door. Through thick accents, they’d order their national loaves, and I understood their passion. There was a comfort in the familiar loaves, the way the bread would perch on a plate next to traditional recipes, ready for that last swipe of the plate and lingering sauces reminiscent of distant homes.
I came to rely heavily on my bread ration, too heavily- a warm, raisin-walnut roll for breakfast, a sandwich on honey-sesame for lunch, and a slice of baguette or levain on the side of dinner. I wasn’t suffering by any means, but I realized bread was taking up a lot of space in my diet and potentially limiting my intake variety. I decided to go on a bread fast.
What started as a week, turned into two months, and in that time, my diet changed tremendously. By cutting out such a staple, I had to be more creative, be more conscious and plan ahead. Eventually, I came to incorporate bread again, but by then, I had established more creative menu planning habits.
I’m not gluten intolerant, but I can sympathize with those who are. When I invited our new friends Dylan & Amber over for dinner, Amber mentioned she had a gluten-intolerance, but if it meant needing to bring her own bread or crackers, that’d be fine. My goal in any dinner party is for everyone to enjoy the meal together, so I saw her gluten intolerance as a challenge, and much like my bread fast, the challenge led to more creative menu planning, including these Collard Spring Rolls.
These healthy, colorful spring rolls come together as if rolling an entire garden row into one compact log! They also led me to discover purple sweet potatoes and the utility of a collard green.
The menu included the Collard Spring Rolls, a Carrot & Sweet Potato Pad Thai (of sorts) with Quinoa Noodles, a Beet & Sunchoke Purée with Edamame, and a Vegan, Gluten-Free Chocolate Dessert (more on that later).
The meal was healthy and vibrant, and it may never have come together like it did if it weren’t for a limitation.
Collard Spring Rolls with Roasted Purple Sweet Potatoes & Cashew Mustard
Adapted from Reclaiming Yesterday
About This Recipe: The main component is the roasted purple sweet potato puree. I found these at Whole Foods, but if they’re nowhere to be found, regular sweet potatoes will work too. Roasting draws a lot of flavor and sweetness, making a flavorful spread for the wraps. The best way to approach this recipe is to have a lot of vegetables, and then just ad lib while building your spring roll. Add some chopped cashews or hemp seeds if you want a little more crunch. They’re great for a packed lunch or an afternoon snack. The Cashew Honey Mustard makes a tasty dip too.
Without any regard for my presence, just across the regularly traversed street, he emerged from his home, with a lawn chair and a bare chest. His gut bore the brunt of years of overeating, while his sporadically tattooed arms remained relatively thin. He set the chair on the sidewalk, one of the main sidewalks of this neighborhood, and he sank into his seat. He cinched up the ends of his nylon sport shorts so as to allow more sun exposure on his upper thighs, which also boasted random tattoos. The tan-line-threatening socks and killer 80s-style high-tops seemed to confirm the rumors of his return from jail and a lingering ankle bracelet. As he settled into his sun worshipping routine, I heard a sound I haven’t heard in ages- the spritz spritz of what I can only assume was tanning oil and not sunscreen.
It was noon, which meant the early spring rays were shining directly on his already bronzed body. He closed his eyes and sank into the chair without a care for his appearance or what the neighbors might think. As the sun traveled through the sky, he rotated his chair, and with closed eyes, he positioned his head toward the warm rays. It was as if he had emerged from 1980, when tanning didn’t cause skin cancer, when perhaps this street was more neighborly, when he didn’t have a record. In some ways, this soon-to-be leathery, ex-con was enviable. There he was, idling away a spring afternoon, giving zero fucks about the ozone layer, his waist line, nosy neighbors, recent fashion trends or the discomfort of pedestrians in his vicinity. Maybe it was his alleged time behind bars, but this neighbor was really soaking up the spring moment.
I’m not adding this man to my heroes and role models list by any means, but this indifferent sunbather did reiterate this goal: bask away an afternoon and just forget everything else! This goal is why I host Sunday brunches. No lines, no wait, no stressed service industry, no surprisingly bad menu items, no sending back an undercooked egg, no thoughts for Monday, etc. Just brunch, conversation, a thoughtful menu, and in the case of this early Cinco de Mayo celebration: a little outdoor time with some sunshine…
…and with a cocktail that won’t cost you $14!
When it comes to brunch cocktails, I like an elixir that uses the palate as the guide, not a complicated recipe of ratios. I infused mango nectar juice with (de-seeded) jalapeño pepper slices, pomegranate seeds, chunks of pineapple and mango and served the spicy, fruity combination with additional limes and tequila for the taking. I salted the rims of the glasses with Pink Himalayan Sea Salt for an extra colorful touch.
The menu consisted of these Baked Tortilla Egg “Nests” with sour cream and guacamole (recipe below), as well as tropical fruits and a Whole Wheat Chocolate Banana Tres Leches Cake for dessert (recipe to come). There was plenty of iced coffee, and Bess kept the drinks flowing! Progressively, the tequila portioning became more pronounced, as it should on a zero-fucks Sunday brunch.
Relieved of her farming duties for the day, Julep was all about a relaxing Sunday with the ladies.
The right weather, and the right friends with their quick wits and sarcastic humor, made me feel a little like the bronzing neighbor. Worries and cares seemed to slip away with each sip of Mango & Tequila. The Chocolate Tres Leches Cake was just the right sweet indulgence, as we exchanged tales of awkward crushes, gossip, goals, plans, progress… all the topics you want to hit with good friends on a Sunday. Each of these creative friends is a mover and a shaker in her own right, so there’s always lots to discuss (Dane, Kelly and Bess), and I’m grateful for the ways they each support me too.
Inadvertently, here’s to the bronzed neighbor with the questionable past, and here’s to good friends gathering for a re-appropriated holiday, tequila cocktails, crispy tortillas and rich chocolate conclusions.
p.s: If you want to create a similar celebration, the handcrafted, Nepalese garlands and pinwheels are available at Roxanne’s Dried Flowers. The vintage, industrial trays and wooden crate are available through Toll Gate Revival, a new favorite salvage & vintage purveyor of mine.
Tortilla Egg Nests/Huevos Rancheros Cups
About This Recipe: These nests combine all your favorite Huevos Rancheros flavors, but baking them makes them a perfect brunch option, since you pop them in the oven and can focus on other details. The recipe below uses a frozen, Fire-Roasted Sweet Corn from Trader Joe’s. If you can’t find that variety at your local TJ’s, you can use regular frozen corn, and roast it with the sweet potato. The idea behind these is loose and flexible. Add other taco favorites or meat for a different variety. I used a pineapple salsa for these cups, but use whatever salsa you love. There may be extras of some of the filling, as the portioning is pretty loose. Depending on your menu, plan on most guests eating two of these.
In an anthropomorphized world, Billy Buttons would be the wide-eyed boy with a dirty face, a dangling overall strap, a slingshot in his back pocket and tussled hair. His very traditional and formal mother would insist on calling him by his given name, Craspedia, but all the other children would chant and cheer, “Billy, Billy Buttons is here!”
In reality, Billy Buttons are these silly, globular flowers, like lollipops or sugary gumdrops on sticks. When I saw these deep violet and chartreuse preserved billy buttons (available here), visions of a purple and green brunch filled my head. When your grocery list is “purple” and “green,” the grocery store becomes a totally different shopping experience and a challenging assignment for guests who ask what to bring.
This purple and green inspired frittata took center stage with slices of heirloom rainbow carrots, asparagus spears and new-to-me purplish kale sprouts (when a kale and a brussels sprout love each other very much…). Always keep a frittata in your proverbial back pocket as a brunch host. A frittata serves a full table of friends, it’s a blank canvas for colorful and seasonal ingredients, and it’s a comforting crowd pleaser.
My green and purple shopping list led me to Trader Joe’s Pesto Gouda, and my old time favorite- blueberry chèvre. Pesto Gouda is a worth buying even when you’re not on a strict color mission.
We toasted blackberry juice mimosas with fresh kiwi and blueberry garnishes.
It wouldn’t be a With The Grains brunch without a little something for the sweet tooth. This gluten-free, frozen dessert was a nod to the emergence of spring and warmer temperatures, topped with homemade whipped cream and juicy blackberries, blueberries and fresh mint. With the lavender crust and frozen fruit layer, the dessert is light, floral and the perfect touch for a spring brunch.
Behind every styled table and fork clanking on a plate, is this pair of pumpkin seeds waiting hopefully for fallen morsels of brunch…
As the colors disappeared from the table, we switched to a completely different palette: neons! This brunch took place on Easter morning and transitioned to an Easter Egg Hunt! “Were there kids there?” asked the Urban Farmer’s mom. Nope, just a bunch of adults, hunting for bright, plastic eggs on a farm. More on that to come!
Stay tuned for our Easter Egg Hunt adventures and the recipe for the Purple & Green themed frozen berry dessert!
Here’s to Colorful Menus!
p.s: If you like my fern centerpieces, check out this DIY I did for Roxanne’s Dried Flowers.
Carrot, Kale Sprout & Asparagus Frittata
About This Recipe: The vegetable component of this frittata recipe is really flexible. The portions I list below are a loose guide, as I was very fluidly creating this version while setting a table, brewing coffee and whipping cream for brunch. Roast, sauté and combine according to your cravings and what’s in season. The main ratios to mind are the egg mixture proportions. I found the Kale Sprouts at Trader Joe’s. If you can’t find them, you could easily substitute kale or brussels sprouts (cut in halves).
I had a lot on my proverbial plate, but my eyes were bigger than my stomach. The heaps grew, but the flavor diminished. Beautiful foods were pushed aside to cram more and more varieties. Strong flavors weakened as the dishes mixed. My favorites were buried under others’ preferences, and my craved flavors were nearly lost completely. Tried and true dishes were just off– rushed, under cooked, and full of excuses. I didn’t need anything else added to this metaphoric plate.
What I needed was a cold hard assessment.
January, full of New Year’s resolutions and birthday reflections brought just that- a very snowy and cold reassessment. I realized there comes a point when too much is just too much. When I snap at my dog who just wants to play, too much is too much. When my posture sinks with sadness, too much is too much. When I barely see friends, too much is too much. When my dining room table sees more laptops and paper piles than brunches and guests, too much is too much, so I made some changes, big changes (more on those to come).
I cleared that proverbial plate. I looked at the menu with new eyes. What’s important to me? What invigorates me? What makes me feel passionate and yields my best work? This space, my own little corner of the blogosphere (thanks for joining me here!), the Urban Farmer, my not-so-little little one, sharing meals, feeding people…all these priorities emerged through the old, mucky heaps, with all the intentional, beautiful drizzles and garnishes of a styled plate at a fancy restaurant.
The natural thing to do after a cold, hard reassessment is a warm, celebratory brunch with good friends, so as my proverbial plate cleared, my very real plate FILLED in the best possible way- with Spelt Waffles, Quinoa Crusted Fried Chicken, Local Grits with Maple Roasted Root Veggies & Sage, drizzles of pure maple syrup, and a few mugs of a hot coffee.
Fried Chicken & Waffles is a mouth-watering combination, but it’s a combination I often pass because of chicken sourcing, frying oils, and a general lack of ingredient care. This brunch, however, celebrated this classic combination with love, care and collaboration.
I wish I could share the recipe for the fried chicken with you, but it was my friend Chris’s doing, and like many a talented cook, his kitchen process is fluid and off-the-cuff. I can give you a few hints. He started with organic, pasture-raised chicken. One of our friends is gluten free, which makes traditional breading problematic. We couldn’t flaunt fried chicken in front of her. That would just be cruel, so Chris used a Quinoa chip as a crust. Additionally, I lent Chris my bottle of organic, non-GMO Safflower oil for a guiltless fry, and the chicken had a stint in the oven for real juiciness. It was a gluten-free gamble, since he puts a lot of pride and practice in his cooking, but it was a crispy win- a win I wish I were still eating!
The grits were another ad-libbed process. I boiled the local grits from the Urban Farmer’s CSA, and as they thickened, I added bright, golden Irish butter, pure maple syrup and maple roasted sweet potatoes and crispy sage. It was a hit- a hit without measurements or recorded times, so I recommend some grit experimenting of your own.
I also recommend sharing your brunch with pups for extra enjoyment. Meet Runo. No, I have not added another little companion to our family though he did trigger the part of the brain that results in hours on petfinder.com. I’m exercising [some] discipline and resistance and trying simply to relish four-legged brunch guests whenever possible.
The one element of this brunch I can share accurately? The waffles! Mixed by yours truly, and flipped by my handsome fella, I recommend you add this recipe to a warm, celebratory brunch of your own! I you happen to have a gluten-free guest in your midst, I recommend this mix from Bob’s Redmill because as much as I love my grains, I’d hate to watch a friend skip waffles.