On the Edge of It

newchapter

Yesterday, we submitted our paperwork to the funding sources we’ll be depending on to help us buy the farm we want.  I am tingling all over with the thought of it.  My emotions are running deep, with what is probably 60% excitement that we’re moving forward, and 40% fear of what we’re getting ourselves into.

Going to work is challenging.  All I can think of is our future farm, which makes it hard to concentrate on the daily tasks and projects I’m in charge of.  My mind periodically tries to shoot up a wave of worry that this might not happen, but I know it will.  This place is THE place.  I can feel it in my bones.  I can feel it in the earth when I’m there.  I can hear it in the farmhouse when I walk through it.  This farm wants us and we want it.

The property we want is not on the market yet, but the seller needs us to make a move soon or it will have to get listed.  Needless to say, we would love to be able to push this rock up the hill faster.  For now, we need to communicate with all parties and have faith that the numbers will line up and that by some time later this summer we’ll be sitting on the porch of our new farm house flush with our dreams of the future.  This farm will be the next chapter in the story of Chris & Jenn.  And it will be awesome.  So, wish us luck, my friends.  If you pray, put us in your prayers.  We’ll take whatever good mojo you’re willing to give us.

I’m still so excited I can barely keep my thoughts straight.   I should probably lay off the caffeine.

Thanks for reading,

Chris

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The Value of Risk

No, not this Risk.  Photo Source:  The internet.  Please don't sue me.
No, not this Risk. Photo Source: The internet. Please don’t sue me.

Jenn and I are finally trying to buy a farm, which has gotten me thinking quite a bit about risk (no, not the Risk pictured above). Before we decided that we wanted to own and operate a farm, my perspective on risk related to property was limited to a modest mortgage for a house and some land. Now, as we find ourselves looking at a property that would suit our vision for the future, I realize that buying a farm is quite a different from buying a house. Land is expensive in Vermont. And if, as we are, you are seeking open land for grazing livestock, it’s even more expensive. Add to that mix a house that is livable and necessary outbuildings such as a barn, and you’ve practically doubled the cost of that “modest mortgage.” Buying a farm means taking a risk.

At age 44, I figure I’m looking at twenty more years of work before I want to retire. Do I want to take on a big debt and a second job? Or would it make more sense just to ride out the next twenty doing what I do and clock out when I reach 62? We’d pay off our current debts and retire. Low risk, nice and safe.  I’ve realized through this soul searching that every pivotal or significant thing I’ve ever done that has made my life better, has been risky. I’m not talking about “drive fast and take chances” risky, I’m talking about big picture risk.

Jenn and I married when we were 20 years old, which was a pretty risky move. I know plenty of people who married young and watched their marriages fall apart because of it. 2016 will mark our 25th wedding anniversary! At 27, we decided to have a child (about is big a risk as any person can take). He’s healthy and (for a teenager) pretty happy. In my 30’s I quit my low-paying customer service job and went to grad school in hopes of finding a better job – a massive financial risk for us. Going back to school allowed me to find good work in a field I’ve now been in for the past thirteen years. I don’t regret a single one of these decisions. In all cases, our decision to take risks paid off. I believe that risk, when well considered and practical, is worth it.

My philosophy on life has long been rooted in Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” It is the final stanza that I can most easily apply to my past, present and future:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

The most rewarding parts of my life have involved risk, and though I’m mid-way to retirement, I’ve realized that I want to continue to do more and expand my horizons over the next twenty years – I want to continue to follow the road not taken. So we stand on the edge of taking a big leap into a large property and a new second career that will require a lot of energy. We’re working every angle we can to find funding to make this happen, to make sure it will be sustainable for us, but in the end – it’s still a risk. And I believe with every ounce of my being that it is the right choice. Wish us all luck, my friends. We’re getting ready to leap!

Thanks for reading,

Chris

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Cookbook Review: The Thrill of the Grill

This will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows Jenn and I, but we have a lot of cookbooks. Not a crazy “I need a curator for all of my books” amount, but a lot. And, even less of a surprise, I have a lot of cookbooks about grilling and barbecue.

One of the plans for my part of this blog is to do periodic cookbook reviews. To get this started, I thought that instead of reviewing the latest and greatest cookbook, I would offer up a review of the cookbook that opened the door and took me into the amazing world of cooking with fire: The Thrill of the Grill (TTOTG).

The Thrill of the Grill, by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby.
The Thrill of the Grill, by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby.

My grilling bible was written in 1990 by Chef Chris Schlesinger and writer John Willoughby, five years after Schlesinger opened the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, MA.  The East Coast Grill was one of the first restaurants to successfully introduce New England city folk to the joys of barbecue. From his “custom-designed open-pit wood-fired grill” he tested a brand of “culinary adventurousness” that set The Thrill of the Grill apart from other cookbooks.

For a beginner like I was when I first read the book, The Thrill of the Grill was one of the first books to tackle grilling in a way that seemed approachable and exciting. In it’s opening chapter, Schlesinger and Willoughby put the reader at ease with a chapter entitled “grills just want to have fun.” Their tone throughout the book feels like an invitation to sit down with them by a smoker and enjoy a nice cold beer in the shade. The opening chapter included what is commonplace in every barbecue and grilling cookbook I own – an simple overview of equipment, fuel, tools and how to work your fire. Laura Hartman Maestro’s line drawings (used to illustrate much of the book) have a gentle simplicity which again, makes the reader feel at home. Coupled with photographer Vincent Lee’s stunning photography, the book is a sight to see.

In the end, it comes down to the recipes – the meat of the matter–so to speak. TTOTG’s recipes cover the geographical map. Much of the book is a tale of where Chef Schlesinger has been. Raised in the south (Virginia), he presents dishes like North Carolina Pulled pork and Outdoor Pork Baby Back Ribs. He includes classics from his own table like Grandma Wetzler’s Baked Beans. In the 1970’s, Chris spent time in Barbados, immersing himself in the culture and the food. From those experiences he brings flavors and ingredients of the Caribbean to his restaurant, and eventually into the cookbook. Tastes like Grilled Shrimp with Pineapple and Ancho Chile Salsa and Tortillas, Tropical Gazpacho (which is unbelievably good) and one of my personal favorites – West Indies Spiced Chicken- weave the reader through Chris Schlesinger’s culinary history. The blending of traditional grilling and barbecue techniques with Southern and Caribbean flavors is a perfect concoction.

I remember going to the East Coast Grill while I was living with my father in Cambridge, MA during high school. I vaguely remember that I enjoyed the food, but it wasn’t until Dad treated me to his rendition of the aforementioned West Indies Spiced Chicken with Grilled Bananas (Grilled fruit? Who did that?) that my mind was truly opened. Never had I had anything like that. The chicken rubbed with the likes of curry, cumin, allspice and cayenne was powerful and spicy, the banana, basted in butter and molasses playing the perfect sweet, soothing counterpoint.

The popularity of grilling and barbecue has led to a flood of cookbooks seeking to teach you the techniques of cooking with fire. Happily, a number of them are good, some are even great. But, The Thrill of the Grill remains one of the most culinarily sophisticated and creative cookbooks I have ever read, rivaled only by recent releases from Pitmaster Chris Hart and Chef Andy Husbands (Wicked Good Barbecue and Wicked Good Burgers) who, unsurprisingly, worked with Schlesinger back in heyday of the East Coast Grill. If I had to recommend a cookbook that would provide you with adventure and excitement as you navigate your grill, I would suggest you look no further than the Holy Grail of my grilling cookbook collection – The Thrill of the Grill.

Thanks for reading,

Chris

My well-loved copy of the Thrill of the Grill.
My well-loved copy of the Thrill of the Grill.
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Taking the Time

A few days ago, I wrote an article for the New England Barbecue Society’s newsletter in the National Barbecue News that talks about the time we barbecue competitors put into practicing the craft. It was inspired in part by a comment made by Andy Husbands, the Chef/Owner of Boston’s Tremont 647 (and member of the Wicked Good Barbecue team). Andy said:

“it’s funny, people ask for ‘easy recipes’ especially easy BBQ recipes from Chris [Hart] and I, we have to tell them it’s not easy, things of quality are not easy they take practice and skill, but the practice is fun and rewarding.”

Practice takes time, but when the food comes out tasting fantastic, and you executed your technique perfectly, it’s worth it.

I often find myself thinking about time and food. Like everyone our life is busy, with the demands of work and home leaving little time to relax or to stop and take stock of where we are. It is hard for many of us to find the time to slow down and savor the moments we’re given. I am grateful that by jumping into competition barbecue a decade ago, I embraced a style of cooking that by its very nature takes time. A big brisket or pork butt could take 10 hours to cook. To cook it right, attention must be paid throughout the process. It’s not just about me throwing it in the oven or in the crock-pot and walking away (and don’t get me wrong, sometimes taking that approach is just right). Instead, it’s about giving the craft of barbecue my undivided attention and my valuable time.

Beef brisket, smoked for eight hours.
Beef brisket, smoked for eight hours.

I do this in part because I believe the animal that gave its life for me to eat deserves my respect, but also because I believe that it is worth it for me to take the time to do it right. Fast and easy is not nearly as rewarding as slow and challenging is. By rushing our cooking I think we lose a lot of the goodness in what we share with our families at dinner time (literally and metaphorically speaking). For example, when you par boil a rack of ribs so you can cook it fast, all of the stuff that rises to the surface is goodness – you have literally boiled the flavor out of the meat. And when we feel that cooking for our families is a chore that needs to be “gotten out of the way,” I think we lose sight of why we cook – to feed the ones we love. I believe that there is great good in the act of cooking food. Food is love.

Home made smoked stock.
Home made smoked stock.

One of the best examples I can think of (beyond barbecue) that demonstrates the benefit of slowing down and cooking it right, is found in making stock. Stock (slowly cooked bones, vegetables and other goodness) is useful to the cook in so many ways. The key to making it right, is to cook it very slowly. When Jenn and I make stock, it sits in a pot on our stove at as low a heat as possible (keeping it above 140 degrees for food safety, of course) for days. That’s right, kids – DAYS. I generally cook my stock for a minimum of four days. The key is the low temperature and the occasional replenishment of water. In the end, after a lot of time, I’m left with an amber liquid that holds the very essence of goodness, a perfect reminder of how good it is to slow down and cook for my family. To take the time to do it right. Because it’s worth it for the ones you love.

Thanks for reading.

Chris

PS: I wanted to include a stock recipe with this post, but the cookbook I used as my reference for stock was lost when we moved out of our old house. I promise I’ll get a recipe for ya’ll sometime soon! C.

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Work Clean

There is a mantra in the food service industry – “work clean.” Put simply, it means that the chef should always work in a clean space – both physically and mentally. But really, it means more than that. In his cookbook “Ruhlman’s Twenty,” Chef and writer Michael Ruhlman starts his book (which I will talk about in a later post, because it’s awesome) talking about “thinking” in the kitchen. He talks about the value of “mise en place” – everything in its place. These are, I have come to discover, words to live by when you’re in the kitchen.

I have to come clean by acknowledging that Jenn and I are not exceptionally clean people. Yes, we shower regularly, but we have always lived in a house that had some level of clutter, and we are not obsessive cleaners. Before we sold our first house, we would always say that one of the things we loved about hosting a family event or shindig with a bunch of friends was that it forced us to clean. This attitude followed me into the kitchen. In the past it was not unusual for me to have a counter piled full of stuff, trying to juggle pans and cutting boards among the clutter while I worked. In hindsight, cooking like this is very stressful.  For our first years of competitive barbecue, at the end of the competition there would be grease and meat and scud all over everything – a perfect representation of how disorganized and sloppy we were.

Ruhlman’s main point about having your mise en place is that having a cluttered work station leads to cluttered thinking. “Clear your path,” he says “and you are less likely to stumble.”  Over the past several years, I’ve realized that this is the truth of it. So, I’m really trying to break my old habits of messy work stations, in favor of working clean. For the past few years of barbecue, I’ve introduced methods of working that really cut down on what needs to be washed (disposable cutting boards, creative use of aluminum foil, etc.), and it has helped greatly with our ability to focus on our work. At home, in part because our current residence is very easy to clean, we’re trying to live that life as well. A few days ago, I came home from work to start dinner and the counter was a mess. About two minutes into my preparation and I was frustrated and feeling harried. So I stopped and completely cleaned my workstation. I was amazed at how much better I felt, how much more focused I was, after taking that simple step.

workcleanlg

So part of this year of cooking involves redefining how I work in the kitchen. Sure, I’m a bit of a slob, so it won’t always be easy to get myself to keep the kitchen neat and clean. But when I settle into the kitchen for more than just cooking some toast and grabbing some coffee, I’ll always take that moment to get my shit together, clean up and get organized. And as I work, I’m going to try to clear my way. That way, I’ll have more time for thinking in the kitchen.

Thanks for reading,

Chris

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Now We Begin

Welcome to our new blog!

Jenn and I had intentions of starting things off at the beginning of the new year, but as is often the case, life, the universe, and everything got in our way. So here we are now at the end of March with winter slowly releasing its bitter grasp on us.  We’ve got sheep who look like they’re ready to explode and I just ordered meat for barbecue season.  Maybe it’s the sense of spring, but we’re finally ready to start Food, Family and Farm – our new blog.  

I wrote the introduction below just after New Year’s Eve. I considered revising it, but I like it and I still feel as though it starts us off right. I hope you enjoy it, look forward to more from Jenn and I in the next few weeks. It is, after all, lambing season.  

Thanks for reading,

Chris

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(Originally written 1/1/15)

How to begin?

Less than a week ago, the ball dropped in New York City, marking the end of 2014. As the sun rises on 2015, it seems the right time to start new things. And so, I start this blog -Food, Family and Farm.

I’ll begin with a confession. Up until the ball dropped, I wasn’t going to do the blog.

The “why” of it relates to this blog’s humble name. Food, family and farm. I created the slogan (with input from my wife, Jennifer, and my best friends) to go on the back of T- shirts for my competition barbecue team, Howling Hog Barbecue (I’ll talk more about them in future posts, but if you want the Cliff’s notes, head over to Howling Hog Barbecue). A phrase like Food, Family and Farm is an uncommon slogan for a barbecue team. Many of them are clever double entendres involving pigs and naughty acts (think “we like to rub our butts” or “there’s heat in our meat.”

For us, the slogan just fit. My wife Jennifer is the operator of Howling Wolf Farm (this humble little blog lives on the farm’s web site). We have raised pastured livestock including pigs, chicken, sheep and even a cow. We love food. We love to cook it. We love to eat it. We love food enough that during many of our summer weekends, we camp out in a field with 20-30 other foodees and try to see who can cook the best barbecue! And we love our family and in particular, we love getting together with our family and celebrating our joy and love with food.

After living with our slogan for over a year, It occurred to me that it would also make a good title for a blog. I am married to a farmer, but I’m not a farmer myself, so I have a unique perspective on being part of the farm. I love to cook, and I particularly love to cook the meat that Jenn raises. I love to talk about food. And most importantly, I love my wife and my teenage son, and all of our extended family deeply. It seemed as though all of these deep and strong perspectives would lend themselves well to a blog. But a year ago, we sold our house of 15 years, moving away from our land and into a small rental on the edge of a bustling little Vermont village. We still have sheep, but to me, it didn’t seem as though I could draw the connections between food, family and farm that I wanted. So I decided I would put the idea up on the shelf until we finally found the right property and really got our farm going.

Last year marked a lot of endings. Our last year in our house. We lost one of our dogs to a heart attack. The transition from a two-story cape with 40 acres to a rental with 4 acres was a shock. It was a rough year. But the truth is that we were really due for the change. Our house was very old and had reached the point that it needed major investment or we needed to move. The land was never well-suited for farming, so we let it go. Bo, one of our two dogs, was twelve years old and pretty big – she was at the end of her lifespan.

Since the new year started, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to new beginnings. I have dubbed this the “year of cooking” (more on that, too), because I want to broaden my skills as a cook. And more and more it has come clear to me that I want to write about food. So, as we rang in the new year with our friends, we decided that we are going to move forward with this blog, regardless of where we live. As I write this Jenn has just come in from feeding the sheep. She and our son Connor dug into a hearty dinner that I cooked. It looks to me like the food, family and farm are all here.

So, my lovely wife and I start Food, Family and Farm. Here we’ll offer our perspectives on the connection between food, family and farm. This will be a new endeavor for us, so we’ll ask your patience as we try to figure out exactly what this part of the internet is supposed to be. We hope you’ll come with us on this trip. Until our next post, be well, eat well and love your family!

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