Horse Power

cedarmountainfarm_0279sDrop me off on a farm with a camera and come back in eight hours; chances are I’ll be occupied and supremely content the whole time. After all, I am a country girl at heart. When the subject matter is something I am particularly drawn to, I can get completely lost in what I’m doing, enamored by all that is going on around me and hesitant to take that one final frame even after a full day of shooting. Such was the case at Cedar Mountain Farm in Hartland, Vermont, in late April. Twenty-one of the resulting images appeared in Anne Raver’s excellent story about the farm’s horse-powered component in the Home & Garden section of The New York Times recently.

Read the article for the back story on Stephen Leslie’s fascinating trajectory from artist to monk to organic farmer and horse whisperer. His calm, gentle, yet assured manner in dealing with the Norwegian Fjord horses was a wonder to witness. The 1,000-pound animals were decidedly non-threatening and obedient. After seeing him in action, I have no doubt his new book from Chelsea Green The New Horse-Powered Farm: Tools and Systems for the Small-Scale Sustainable Market Grower is bound to become the definitive book on the subject.

Having recently spent time in an intense environment where people are connected to the point of distraction—and getting sucked into it myself as a recent iPhone convert—I particularly appreciate Stephen’s desire to delve into the spiritual element of working so closely with these animals. In the article he says, “I think people are hungering for a kind of unplugged reality. That leads to a deeper self-understanding.” Coincidentally, I just read “The Art of Paying Attention” by James Fallows in this month’s The Atlantic about continuous partial attention and how to focus in this hyperconnected world. Linda Stone, the tech executive Fallows interviews, conjectures that “the generation that has been tethered to devices serves as a cautionary example to the next generation, which may decide this is not a satisfying way to live.” Let it be so. Below are some outtakes from this environment of “relaxed presence” where the only tethering is that of the horses to the plow, and where, as Stone says, “Mind and body are in the same place at the same time”—something we could all benefit from striving toward.

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The Norwegian Fjord horse has many distinct physical attributes including this dorsal stripe handsomely displayed by Tristan.

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Grooming the copiously shedding horses is a daily ritual.

Making short work of a field where a cover crop will be planted.

Making short work of a field where a cover crop will be planted.

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Never one to miss out on a party, the youngest Fjord horse on Cedar Mountain Farm, Isolde, gallops to catch up to her friends already out to pasture.

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The horses are so calm that even Charlie the barn cat feels comfortable walking underneath them!

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Stephen leads his 6-year-old daughter, Maeve, onto the farm when she arrives home from school.

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Charlie keeps Maeve company in a corner of the milking parlor while her parents tend to the 20 jersey cows that need milking.

Maeve occupies herself while her parents work.

A curious cow observes Maeve as she colors.

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First in line for dinner!

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Stephen’s wife, Kerry Gawalt, feeds the farm’s cows prior to milking. The cows’ manure is composted and turned into the fields by the draft horses.

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In regard to not letting your own stress affect the horses, Stephen says, “That’s the Zen practice you have to work on yourself: Take some deep breaths, create some sense of calm.”

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Consider the Mandoline (or something like it)

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I’m currently reading Bee Wilson’s fascinating book Consider the Fork, which is about historical changes in cooking implements and methods, and how they’ve affected what and how we eat, and, consequently, human health. She talks about kitchen gadgets that we love (she, too, is an aeropress devotee!), as well as those that get cast aside because they don’t prove useful enough, or because they actually create more work for the cook. We don’t have too much gadgetry in our kitchen, all things considered. I have to think long and hard about adding anything new as I’m loathe to clutter the cupboards any further. This is one reason that, despite pining for paper-thin veggies on occasion, I’d long avoided getting a mandoline. The other, of course, being the horror stories of people losing finger tips under its razor-sharp blade (including Wilson herself).

But after seeing mention of the Muji grater slicer set on a food blog, I was ready to take the plunge. I was sold on its price ($17.95!), ultra simple design and compact form. It has more than delivered in the three months that we’ve had it. If you have never had a similar gadget, you will want to start slicing every fruit and veggie in sight (and maybe some other things too). You will likely stare in wonder at the beauty of each new item you reduce to transparent sheets within seconds. And some of those sheets you will stack and finely slice lengthwise to easily and quickly produce piles of julienned goodies. Your salads and stir frys will be transformed by virtue of pleasing shapes and textures, and your friends will be saying in wide-eyed amazement, “How did you DO that?!”

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muji slicer with carrots

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While it is clearly a dumbed-down mandoline (it doesn’t have an adjustable blade so you’re confined to one thickness), this gadget definitely earns the small amount of shelf space it occupies. It is a much faster and more uniform way of finely slicing vegetables than using a knife. But be wary: you can still hurt yourself as you would on a mandoline (I haven’t YET). Also, the grater attachment isn’t particularly useful unless you’re looking for more of a zester as it tends to pulverize or shred more than grate. I’m sure there are other slicers out there similar to the Muji that work just as well if not better. They may not be as cute and simple though!

Here’s a quick and versatile salad to get you started as you begin to explore the possibilities available to you with this meal-transforming tool! Does this sound like an infomercial yet?

Root Vegetable and Apple Slaw

2½ c. assorted root vegetables (such as carrots, beets, celeriac, fennel or radishes)
1 crisp apple

Dressing:
2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1½ T. apple cider vinegar
1½ t. lemon juice
1 T. honey
salt and pepper to taste

Peel vegetables if needed. Cut those wider than the slicing blade in half. Core the apple and cut into quarters. Slice vegetables and apple using the Muji slicer or a mandoline. Stack larger slices and then cut them lengthwise into thin strips to produce matchsticks. Create a mixture of shapes for a more interesting taste and appearance. Whisk dressing ingredients together and toss with vegetables and fruit. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Voila!

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Ode to Snow

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With the spring equinox around the corner, I wanted to pay tribute to the white winter we’ve been having before the last vestiges of snow leave us. It seems like most people here in Maine either love the snow or hate it. I’m one of those who jumps for joy. Sometimes literally! It’s beautiful for photography, and it allows me to have outdoor winter adventures in remote places. A few snowfalls we had this winter really transformed the landscape. On a couple of occasions the trees looked like they had been assaulted by an overzealous cake decorator. On these mornings, I made it a point to go for walks on wooded trails not far from our house. It was hard not to wander around with mouth agape in awe. And then there were the 31 inches (yes, THIRTY ONE) that fell over the course of two days in early February. That may have been the one time I said “enough already!” Winter adventure highlights included a ski trip with friends into the 100-Mile Wilderness and the awesome Little Lyford Pond Camps, snowshoe hikes up two peaks in the White Mountains, and numerous nordic ski outings in Maine and New Hampshire. Here are a selection of some of the sights I saw in my various travels. And with that, I may almost be ready to bid this most peaceful of seasons good-bye. Almost.

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Make the Basics Part IV: Goat Cheese

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I’ve written before about how easy it is to make goat cheese, but it is worth another post, especially one with pretty pictures! For a few years now, I’ve made goat cheese to give as holiday gifts to close friends. After getting rave reviews from recent recipients, I was reminded again that people should know just how incredibly easy this is to do. It may sound and look impressive (and maybe I should keep people in the dark so they continue to think I’m amazing!), but really, a monkey could do this.

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The biggest hurdle (and it’s not very big) is getting the main ingredients: goat’s milk and the chèvre culture. Other materials you will need are a thermometer, colander, slotted spoon and butter muslin (or cheesecloth). If you’re lucky like me and live in Maine, you can likely get fresh unpasteurized goat’s milk at your local farmers’ market (I get mine from Mainely Poultry for $5 per 1/2 gallon) or possibly a health food store/co-op/purveyor of local foods. Culture can come from a number of different sources. I use New England Cheese Making Supply. It works well to start a batch before going to bed at night and then letting it drain over the course of the next day. By that evening, it’s ready to eat! Just so you can see how easy it is, here are instructions based on those from New England Cheese Making Supply (I’m not sure why they left out the “let your spoiled cat lap up the leftover milk” step):

1) Heat 1 gallon of goat’s milk to 86° F.

2) Add 1 packet C20G (the culture) and stir.

3) Cover and let set at 72° F (it will still come out fine if it’s a bit cooler than this) for 12 hours.

4) Ladle curd gently into a butter muslin (or cheese cloth) lined colander.

5) Hang and drain for 6 to 12 hours (depending on desired consistency).

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Yup, that’s all there is to it. Once the cheese has drained, you’ll want to mix in a teaspoon or two of sea or kosher salt per gallon of milk to bring out the flavor (and slow the growth of bacteria), and you can add other herbs or spices too. For the holidays, I sprinkled rosemary and red pepper flakes on the surface of the rounds for a festive feel. If you’re giving them as gifts and want to get all Martha Stewarty, you can create a cute label and package too!

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Probably because it’s so much fresher than what you would buy from the store, the taste is remarkable. And if you find a reasonably priced source of goat’s milk, it’s definitely financially worth it to make your own…especially when you have a bit of a cheese addiction. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything. A gallon usually makes 5 or 6 rounds about 2½ inches in diameter. I doubt it will still be sitting in anybody’s fridge for very long, but it seems to hold up very well even 10 days later. Give it a try! It’s easy and satisfying, and you’ll impress the hell out of your friends.

You Can Go Home Again

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I’ve lived in Maine for nine years this month (not including my college years). I adore this state. The landscape, the extent of outdoor activities at my fingertips, the people and the food are all things that make me appreciate the quality of life here. And yet. You knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you? Well, the thing is, this is not my home. Mainers will tell you you’re not a real Mainer unless you were born here, or if they’re being really hard core, if your parents and maybe even your grandparents were also born here. I was born on Long Island (New York, that is), but from the time I was four until I went away to college I lived in Sharon, Conn., a small town of about 3,000 in the northwest corner of the state, near both the New York and Massachusetts borders, an area also known as the Berkshire Hills. This countryside is my home. I can say that with certainty.

My parents still live in the house I grew up in, but between life obligations and a not insignificant drive, we don’t get there very often. More than a year passed between our most recent visits, largely due to our dog’s terminal illness. I feel an almost physical longing for this area when I have been away too long. When I get there, I want to spend as much time as possible outside, as if by being in the forests, fields and mountains and beside the rivers, streams and lakes of my childhood, I can soak up and store the experience until the next time when the batteries can be recharged. It is one of those rare places that has remained largely untouched by big box stores and hideous housing developments. It is still teeming with wildlife and plant life (my parents no longer have a bird feeder out due to the bear population). It is the place that instilled in me a lifelong love of the outdoor world. When people ask me what it’s near I tend to reply “nothing.” And it’s true. I think of it as removed from the rest of the world. I hope it will always be that way.

Below are some mementos from my recent outdoor expeditions in this extraordinarily beautiful place I’m lucky enough to think of as home. (Sorry, I got a little carried away with the long exposure water shots!)

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Housatonic River along River Road after light snowfall.

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Creek at Sharon Audubon Center

Salmon Kill.

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Natural Food

As yesterday was the first day since last winter I’ve worn a hat all day (don’t worry, it’s okay to do crazy stuff like that here in Maine) and the occasional snowflake is gently floating through the air, I thought I’d better get some fall photos posted before the next season is officially upon us. In reviewing some recent food photos and then some snapshots from fall walks in the woods, I was immediately struck by some similarities. I could see many compelling correlations ranging from colors to textures to composition. There are a couple probable reasons for this. I suspect I am drawn to the same hues, surfaces and shapes no matter the subject, but it’s also possible that I draw inspiration from the things I see and photograph in the natural world and then subconsciously mimic those elements in more artificial settings. At least, I sort of hope that’s the case! Either way, I enjoyed the exercise of pairing these photos. And I hope you enjoy viewing them.

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Jam Session

concord grapes from Hannah Holmes

An acquaintance who lives one street over posted this notice on Facebook last month: “Neighbors: We have a few hundred pounds of organic, free-range, native, sustainably pollinated Concord grapes fixing to fall off the vines and make a righteous mess. Want?” My answer was, more or less, “I’ll be right over!” First, I have a hard time turning down fresh, free food growing in someone’s yard. Secondly, I’d long thought bunches of wild, deep indigo Concord grapes would be a fantastic photo subject. Thirdly, I seem to have a masochistic desire to complete recipes that involve ridiculously time-consuming, tedious steps, but that result in a very satisfying or unusual end product. So, yes, I basically spent the better part of two days picking and then photographing grapes in various stages of undress, making the jam, and then shooting the pretty purple spread.

concord grape jam from Hannah Holmes' grapes
Hannah
was not kidding when she said they had a few hundred pounds of grapes. The smell immediately hit me when I arrived in her driveway. It was so intense it almost seemed artificial, like grape Kool-Aid scent wafting through the air. The vines stretch from her garage all the way down a fence that extends at least 50 feet along the length of her backyard. When you’re surrounded by these plump, purple orbs, it’s hard not to pop one in your mouth, so, of course, I did. Hannah, knowing what I was in for, waited for my reaction with a bemused smile. The tartness immediately made my lips pucker and my eyes grow wide. Wow! That is some seriously intense grape flavor.

concord grape jam from Hannah Holmes' grapes
I spent a couple hours arranging and shooting grape clusters and vines in numerous set ups on a metal background, and then began the process of skinning the grapes. This isn’t as hard as it sounds, but it does take a while…especially when you’re skinning 5 pounds of grapes! When they’re ripe, you can just squeeze one end of the fruit between your thumb and forefinger, and it pops right out of its protective coating. The skins and naked fruit were so cool looking that another round of photos ensued. Eventually, I got back to the jam making itself. I used this recipe, though as is my standard practice when making jam, put in half the amount of sugar the recipe calls for. And for a second batch, I used honey instead of sugar, and I much prefer how that tastes. The jam thickened nicely without pectin after about 45 minutes of simmering. The grape flavor is still incredibly intense in jam form, so one does not need much to satisfy the desire for a hint of sweet, tart fruit flavor. A dollop on top of goat cheese on a cracker or a thin schmear on some whole grain toast is about all you need.

concord grape jam from Hannah Holmes' grapes

If a friend or neighbor has a surplus of these blue-black beauties, or you see them growing on the side of the road, I recommend you run right over and get yourself some antioxidant-rich grape goodness. If a labor-intensive jam isn’t in the cards, try making something simple like juice that could be added to seltzer to make a refreshing homemade grape soda.