Small farms can go mano a mano with food shows like The Iron Chef in reconnecting Americans with good food
In fact, says Andy Griffin, lots of CSA customers want to be pushed into cooking again. That’s why he and his wife Julia supply members with lots of recipes and tips. They even feature recipes of members and employees in their weekly newsletter--including donkey ear zucchinis.

By Andy Griffin


Mariquita Farm

Location: Land in Watsonville and Hollister
Years farming: Andy has farmed for the last 20 years in various capacities from farmworker to owner, from large farm to small.
Total acres farmed: 25
Key people: Andy, farmer and rave king; Julia, farm wife, CEO, mom, email elf, etc.; España, foreman, tractor driver, all around repairman; Jose España, head harvester; Lourdes Duarte, head vegetable packer
Range of crops: greens, root crops, tubers and herbs, berries, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, melons, artichokes, and more besides that.
Marketing methods: CSA and 1 farmers market, with a small number of carefully selected restaurants that pick up at the farmers market
Soil type: silty loam
Regenerative practices: cover cropping, crop rotation, fallowing
Length of season: all year

August 12 , 2005: Julia and I were excited to get an invitation from Chef Traci Des Jardins to come to one of her restaurants, Jardiniere, in San Francisco, for a special screening of the Iron Chef America TV program. The episode we’re viewing will feature Traci and her team locked in mortal culinary combat with Chef "Molto Mario" Batali of New York’s Babbo Restaurant. Obviously, Ms. Jardins is not at liberty to disclose who won the pre-recorded contest, but at Mariquita Farm we’re all rooting for the "Gal From Firebaugh, California."

Traci Des Jardins grew up on her family’s cotton farm in the San Joaquin Valley and has been a big supporter of our farm and other small local farms. Her grounded, earthy sensibility has yet to be been cooked out of her despite the time she's spent in some very fancy French restaurants. I like that Traci’s most recent venture is 'Mijita', an affordable but high quality Mexican restaurant. Traci grew up on Mexican food and 'Mijita ' means 'my daughter' in colloquial Mexican Spanish, so you know this is a personal project for her. Even though Traci has classical French culinary techniques trained into her fingertips I have fun thinking of her appearance on Iron Chef America as a modern "homegirl makes good" fairy tale.

Viewers across America will be sitting down to watch the Iron Chef battle just like us. And why? Because everyone likes a fun, entertaining show, and everybody knows that reigning Iron Chef Mario Batali is a big ham. Real food freaks that follow the gossip columns in the Wednesday food sections of America’s newspapers will be watching to see if one of the food world’s most charismatic stars is going to get his toque knocked off by a woman who makes tacos. But the audience for food shows is bigger than ever before and not limited to just the "food freaks". Consumers are becoming sated with empty convenience. They’re hungering for good food and the satisfaction that comes from preparing good food for others. As a country we’ve come perilously close to forgetting how to cook with love and care.

Small farms can find a role catering to this new appetite Americans have for a re-connection to the skills and traditions of good food, just as the popular food shows are doing. Our own informal surveys lead us to believe that a majority of people who join our farm’s community supported agriculture program do so because they wish to be helped, or even shoved, into cooking more frequently, and into cooking in a healthier way. That means we need to put emphasis in our newsletters on recipes and cooking.

We take nothing for granted when we select recipes for our share-box subscribers. Julia always includes links in our email newsletter to on-line photos we’ve taken of the crops we’re harvesting, so that our subscribers can positively identify every item in their box, no matter how little they know. Lots of people tell us they love the pictures, and some people have even downloaded photographs for their desktop backgrounds.

Julia stores the recipes she publishes in an on-line encyclopedia so subscribers can return again and again for information if they wish. And because variety is the spice of life Julia goes out of her way to source a wide range of recipes. She must have over a hundred cookbooks she can research for ideas, but she's found one of the best ways to get fresh ideas and promote subscriber interaction with the CSA program is to solicit recipes from our membership. A regular feature CSA members how they plan to use the week’s box. Occasionally we’ll ask one of the restaurant chefs we work with to provide a recipe. They give a professional tone to our efforts. And sometimes we’ll ask our workers how they use the vegetables in their homes. Lourdes Duarte, an employee of ours’ from Michoacan, gave us a recipe for " vegetarian donkey’s ears". And, no, she doesn’t cut the ears off a vegetarian donkey.

Lourdes says to peel the skin off of a large zucchini. (At this time of year we’re up to our ears in zucchini, so any help we can give our subscribers to use them will help keep them from throwing them back at us.) Chop off the rounded ends. Cut the squash in half, then split the halves into quarters. Make a cut into each quarter slice that does not go so far as to divide the pieces into eighths.

Tie a string from the branch of one tall bush to the branch of another bush and make sure it’s taunt. It’s also best that the string be in full sun. In Mexico, Cardon cacti, the big columnar cacti that look like Saguaros, make excellent poles to suspend the string, but up here in the States a clothesline works well enough.

Slide the pieces of split squash over the string and leave them hanging until the squash is well dehydrated. (If, like Lourdes, rural Mexico is your frame of reference, these dried squash pieces look like donkey’s ears.) Then make a mole sauce from scratch, or get to the store to buy a can of mole. Plop the donkey ears in boiling water until they’re tender once more, then remove and drain them. Slather them with mole sauce and serve them as a side dish. Voila! Orejones del burro!

The burrito isn’t common in Mexico the way it is here in California, but it makes poetic sense that donkey ears, seasoned with mole and wrapped up in a warm flour tortilla , would make a natural burrito. Either way, donkey ears sound tasty to me. I wonder what would happen if we took Iron Chef America out of the TV studio kitchen and set it down on a small rancho in central Mexico? Would reigning Iron Chef "Molto Mario" have what it takes to go mano a mano with a country girl like Lourdes?

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