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Wendy Petty

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Rocky Mountains, CO

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Wendy Petty is a forager, photographer, and wild foods consultant.
She believes that wildcrafting foods deepens her connection with the place she loves most, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Her quest is to experience deeply local cuisine -- the meats, vegetables, fungi, fruits and herbs that breathe the same air and occupy the same land she does, and express the taste of that place. Her blog is Hunger and Thirst: searching for food ... and finding presence.

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Wade Into Wild Foods With Cattails This Summer Image

Cattails have been described as the grocery store of the wild because every part of the plant is edible. During the growing season, three of these parts — shoots, flowers and pollen — provide easily accessed and versatile food for foragers.

Better yet, these parts of the cattail offer analogs to familiar flavors such as cucumber and corn, which means that even those dubious of wild food might enjoy them. Euell Gibbons treasured cattails, “For the number of different kinds of food it produces there is no plant, wild or domesticated, which tops the common cattail.”

Sometimes growing 9 feet tall and best recognized in late summer by their brown cigar-shaped flowers, both broadleaf (Typha latifolia) and narrow-leaf cattail (T. angustifolia) are edible, and can be used interchangeably. Though widely available, care must be taken to harvest cattail from a clean location because the plant grows in marshy areas, which can be contaminated.

Whether you live in the city or the country, use caution when choosing a place to pick cattails, particularly cattail shoots. Consider what the water looks and smells like where you are harvesting, as well as what may be upstream. In the city, drainage from streets and golf courses can make water unsafe for collecting food. Rural locations can look pristine, but beware of agricultural runoff.

Finding the right place to forage

Cattails in water. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Cattails in water. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Perhaps the best known edible part of cattail, the tender core of the growing leaves, is commonly referred to as the shoot. Cattail shoots are best before the plant begins to flower. To harvest cattail shoots, peel back the outer two or three leaves, firmly grasp the remaining leaves with both hands, and give the plant a tug. You will have in your hands something that looks like an enormous leek.

Peel back more leaves until the lower end is a creamy pale white. Cut off all of the dark green leaves so that you are left with a heart of cattail. If you feel certain you have harvested your cattail shoots from a clean location, do a taste test.

Some people feel a scratchy sensation at the back of the throat when eating raw cattails. If so, skip eating them raw. If you don’t feel the itchy sensation, delight in the crunchy and satisfyingly cucumber taste of cattail shoots. They can be used in all the dishes for which you’d traditionally use cucumber, from salad to tzatziki to refreshing yogurt soup.

Making the most of cattail shoots

Cattail shoots. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Cattail shoots. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Cattail shoots are also fantastic when cooked. They can simply be chopped and added to stir-fries and side dishes. They are especially good when blanched, dressed in oil, garlic, salt and pepper, and lightly grilled.

When cattail flowers emerge, they are well disguised by sheaths of leaves, much like slender ears of corn. Cattail flowers are made up of two parts. The upper portion is male and will go on to produce pollen. The lower portion is female and is what remains and turns into the recognizable brown sausage-shaped punk later in the year.

In narrow-leaf cattail, the male and female portion are separated by a small bit of spike, whereas the broad-leaf cattail, the two bits are connected. The upper, male, portion of the cattail flower is what is traditionally harvested, as it provides a greater amount of edible material than the female bit.

Cattail flowers — just like corn on the cob

Preparing cattail flowers. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Preparing cattail flowers. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Look to collect cattail flowers as they begin to emerge from their sheath, and simply cut the upper portion off with a pair of scissors or a knife.

To enjoy cattail flowers, steam them whole for 10 minutes. If you have children around, they may enjoy eating the cooked cattail flowers with a bit of butter and salt, like miniature corn-on-the-cob, though care must be taken not to ingest the inedible toothpick-like core of cattail flowers.

Cattail flowers may also be stripped off their inner core using an upside down fork. Using this method, it is quite simple to prepare a large amount of flowers in a short period of time.

Cattail flowers have a surprisingly sweet and mellow flavor, not unlike corn. They may be prepared simply, with nothing more than garlic butter and salt. Cattail flowers also work well in egg dishes and soups.

The special treat of cattail pollen

Cattail pollen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Cattail pollen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Perhaps the most delightful part of the cattail to eat is its bright yellow pollen.

Look for cattail flowers that are loaded with yellow pollen, like a mop heavy with dust, and collect it by shaking the top portion of the cattail flower into a milk jug or half-gallon Mason jar, either in the field or snipped off and done at home.

Cattail pollen can be substituted into 1/3 of the flour in most recipes for baked goods, from pancakes to muffins and breads. Cattail pollen can also be used to add a sunny color and subtle milky corn flavor to rice dishes.

 Main photo: Cattails. Credit: Copyright 2015 Ellen Zachos

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5 Wild Greens You Need To Be Eating This Spring Image

Spring has finally lifted her sleepy head, and while your garden veggies may not yet be ready to harvest, there are edible wild greens popping up all over that will enable you to enjoy the fresh foods you are craving.

Wild plants are hardy and can handle the weather swings that often come with spring. Take a few minutes to look at the ground, and you may be surprised at how many tasty edibles are right at your feet.

Just make certain to follow the three golden rules of foraging. First, never eat any plant you’ve not identified with certainty. Second, don’t eat anything you suspect has been sprayed or grows in contaminated areas. And finally, harvest sustainably, with an eye to the greater environment. Grab a local guidebook, and see how many of these wild greens of spring you can add to you kitchen.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelion, the iconic weed, may be one of the most versatile in the kitchen, as it can be eaten root to tip. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Dandelion, the iconic weed, may be one of the most versatile in the kitchen, as it can be eaten root to tip. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Sure, you already knew you could eat the leaves of these familiar wild greens, may have even seen them at the grocery store, but did you know that every part of the dandelion is edible?

You can cook the root like you would a carrot, if it is tender enough. If the root is tough, it can be chopped, dried, roasted, and enjoyed as a coffee-like beverage. The crown of dandelion, where the leaves meet the taproot can be a delightful vegetable, cooked and eaten as a side dish, or thrown into stir-fries.

The flowers can be put straight into salads for a pop of color and bitterness, or fried into fritters. Even the long flower stalks can be boiled like noodles, if you have enough on hand.

My favorite dandelion recipe is to prepare a pizza with a salt-and-pepper garlic crust, baked with prosciutto, cheese and eggs, and graced with a generous handful of raw dandelion leaves once it emerges from the oven.

Mustards (multiple genera)

Wild mustards, relatives of broccoli and kale, bring zest and bitterness to recipes. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Wild mustards, relatives of broccoli and kale, bring zest and bitterness to recipes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Wild plants in the Brassicaceae family are botanically related to some of the most common commercial vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, turnips and kale. Wild mustard plants sometimes have a stronger flavor than their grocery store cousins, but you can use that to your advantage by pairing them with equally strong flavors.

Locally, I use musk mustard (Chorispora tenella) in much the same way as arugula, enjoying it with a bold blue cheese dressing as salad or stuffed into sandwiches. Another favorite is white top mustard (Lepidium draba), which stands in nicely for broccoli rabe in the classic pasta dish with sausage.

The trick with mustard plants is often in knowing at what stage to eat them for best flavor, which is something you can find out from your local guidebook. The great advantage of wild mustards is that they are often invasive in nature and can be harvested in large quantities.

Dock (Rumex spp.)

If you like the lemony flavor of sorrel, you may well enjoy dock, which can substituted for spinach in all of your favorite recipes. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

If you like the lemony flavor of sorrel, you may well enjoy dock, which can substituted for spinach in all of your favorite recipes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Dock can often be recognized by its tall fruiting stalk, which turns rust-colored when it dries out. If you’ve got dock nearby, seek out its newly unfurled leaves, staying away from any that are touched with red or purple, which may indicate bitterness. Because of its high oxalic acid content, dock is best enjoyed cooked.

Lovers of sorrel will immediate recognize a similar lemony green taste in dock. It makes a very nice last minute addition to all manner of soups, and is also a natural in egg dishes.

Knotweed (Fallopia japonica, F. sachalinensis, and F. bohemica)

Invasive knotweed looks a bit like asparagus when it is newly emerged, the best time for harvest. Its hollow shoots are tart and tangy, somewhat like rhubarb. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Invasive knotweed looks a bit like asparagus when it is newly emerged, the best time for harvest. Its hollow shoots are tart and tangy, somewhat like rhubarb. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

In most places outside of Asia, knotweed is considered unwelcome, even pernicious. It has taken a stronghold in several areas of U.S. Because it is reviled as an invasive, you must take great care to harvest knotweed from a place you are certain has not been sprayed. But if you find a clean area to harvest knotweed, you will be able to snap off the earliest growth of this plant and take advantage of its tart flavor.

The hollow shoots of these wild greens make an excellent crisp pickle, or can be cooked into savory sauces to be paired with game meat. Knotweed can also stand in any place you’d use rhubarb. Take care not to put trimming from knotweed into your compost, so as not to further spread it.

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)

Asparagus is an excellent plant to begin your foraging journey, because it looks identical to that which can be purchased at the store. Credit:Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

Asparagus is an excellent plant to begin your foraging journey, because it looks identical to that which can be purchased at the store. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

 

One of the kings of wild spring foods, you can stalk the wild asparagus just like outdoorsman Euell Gibbons did. The asparagus that grows wild in the U.S. is actually the same species sold in stores. It escaped from gardens at some point, and is technically considered feral for that reason.

The key to finding asparagus in the wild is learning to recognize the bushy yellow-gold color of the previous year’s plants. Once you have that pattern down, old fence lines, former farm land and irrigation ditches are often your best bet for finding asparagus.

Main photo: Foraging basket with asparagus and dock. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

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New Pressure Cookers Make Fast Work Of Slow Food Image

We’ve all heard some version of the story that has kept us from using pressure cookers. “A second cousin of a friend of a friend of my grandmother’s exploded a pressure cooker once upon a time. Her precious pet poodle lost his eyesight and an ear, and they were picking pieces of shrapnel out of the ceiling for 18 years after.” I knew the story so well that I was convinced it has happened to someone in our family, though upon investigation, I could find no evidence of any of my relatives having ever experienced an exploding pressure cooker.

Still, the vague feeling of unease surrounding pressure cookers followed me well into my adulthood. After watching an Indian friend use a pressure cooker daily, I started to reconsider my fear of them. The idea of being able to make all of my favorite boiled, steamed, and braised dishes in a fraction of the usual cooking time was very appealing. So I did what we all do in this age, I researched pressure cookers on the Internet.

I discovered that modern pressure cookers are different from the ones our grandmothers used. While some are still sold with a weighted jiggling valve, most come with a spring-loaded pressure-release valve, known as second-generation pressure cookers. Third-generation cookers are the new electric models. These modern pressure cookers have redundant safety mechanisms that make catastrophe nearly impossible.

I found that there were some variables to consider. Stovetop or electric? Four-, 6-, 8- or 10-quart pot? Multiple pressure settings or just one? The brand that consistently won comparison testing was out of my price range, so it was a matter of finding the right combination of these variables that would work for me. My research led me to conclude that one could nitpick the details, but as a novice, so long as I selected a second-generation stainless steel model with a stated operating pressure of 15 PSI, I’d be in good shape.

Though electric pressure cookers are credited by some as being responsible for the renewed popularity of the appliance, I quickly eliminated this option. Most electric pressure cookers operate at a slightly lower PSI than stovetop models. Knowing that I was also losing some pressure due to living at high altitude, the combined loss of pressure made this a less desirable option for me.

Deciding on a size

I had thought for certain I’d get an 8-quart model. After all, why wouldn’t bigger be better, especially for making stock, which was one of the main reasons I wanted a pressure cooker? I soon learned that a larger pressure cooker may be too big for my small household for most occasions, and if I really needed to make a greater quantity of stock, the speediness afforded by pressure cooking would make it possible to run two consecutive batches.

Some pressure cookers have low- and high-pressure settings, or in the case of some electric models, many settings. Again, I had initially thought that more would be better. Then I found out that the low setting is mostly used for cooking things such as tender vegetables and desserts. I knew I wasn’t likely to make those foods in a pressure cooker. Deciding to purchase a cooker with only one pressure setting gave me more budget-friendly options.

In the end, I purchased a respectable 6-quart stainless steel stovetop model with one pressure setting for a reasonable price.

To be honest, my first time using my new pressure cooker, despite having read extensively about how safe modern ones are, I was terrified as it came up to heat. I kept picturing that poor poodle and pieces of metal embedded in the ceiling. I didn’t want to stand near it, and seriously contemplated wearing safety glasses.

Now, after several months of using it regularly, I fear my pressure cooker far less than pot handles overhanging the stovetop when kids are around. In the worst case scenario, if I forget to turn down the heat or the vent clogs, the silicone gasket will tear and the steam will escape quickly, but without an explosion. Far from maiming a pet and needing to remodel the kitchen, this would mean investing in a new $10 gasket.

My pressure cooker has simplified my meal preparation throughout the week. I use it to put large quantities of staples into the refrigerator that I can and recombine with fresh vegetables throughout the week to make quick meals. Most weeks, I use the pressure cooker to cook a few pounds of potatoes, a pound of beans, some wild rice, and meaty bones provide pieces of meat and stock.

I’m in awe of the fact that I can cook a roast in an hour, or go from dry, unsoaked beans to a meal in about the same time. These tasks used to take hours, and forethought.

One of my favorite foods to cook with the pressure cooker is wild rice. I had some wild rice in the cupboard that was given as a gift from a friend who harvested it. I’d put off cooking it for an embarrassing length of time because it requires so much time to cook. The pressure cooker cooks it up beautifully in half an hour. Each piece cooks through but remains wonderfully chewy between the teeth. I like it so much that I quickly used all that my friend had given me, and make a big batch every week to eat on its own, to combine with grains, and to add to soups.

Pressure Cooker Porcini Wild Rice

Prep time: 45 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 cup wild rice

1/2 ounce dried porcini, crumbled

1 head wild Allium bulbils (substitute a clove of garlic)

1 bay leaf

Pinch of salt

3 cups water

Directions

1. Add all of the ingredients to the pressure cooker, and give them a quick stir just to make certain everything is wet.

2. Close and seal the pressure cooker, bring it to pressure according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Cook at high pressure for 25 minutes.*

3. Remove the pressure cooker from the heat and let it depressurize on its own.

A tiny amount of water will remain along with the cooked wild rice. This is a good thing because it has kept the wild rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot while it cooked. You can either use or drain it.

*For every 1,000 feet of gain above 2,000 feet in altitude, increase the cooking time by 5%.

Main photo: Mushrooms and wild rice for Pressure Cooker Porcini Wild Rice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty

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Sumac’s Tart Flavor Adds To The Foraged Spice Rack Image

Sumac is local lemon for foragers who live in places where there’s no chance of plucking one from a tree. When picked at peak ripeness, but before rain can wash off its tart coating of edible acids, sumac is just as pucker-worthy as any children’s sour candy. That tart flavor of sumac is a valuable part of my wild edible spice rack, and I turn to it often. The other great advantage of sumac is that it stores very well if kept cool and dry.

I was reminded of this as I stood and surveyed my pantry. At mid-winter in the Rockies, a forager can sometimes have a hard time finding enough activities to satisfy the urge to wildcraft. One can only spend so much time looking for tiny leaves of green beneath the leaf duff and snow, and sampling fermented-on-the-tree crab apples.

In the darkest months of the off-season, my larder offers up opportunities to work with the wild foods I adore. I spend much of the summer putting up as many wild foods as I can manage, in all forms – frozen, pickled, canned and dried. Seeing my shelves lined with these gorgeous preserves, I get the same feeling that some must get when gazing upon jewels, or the proverbial kid in a candy store. Recently, it was my tin full of red sumac that beckoned to me.

Though every forager I know, and many people who belonged to outdoor-based clubs as kids, has tried the sumac version of lemonade, sumac is probably best known as being a key component in za’atar spice blend, appearing along with herbs, sesame seeds and salt.

Sumac. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac. Credit: Wendy Petty

I often sprinkle ground sumac into recipes, savory and sweet, to add a little zip of brightness. Standing in my pantry looking at my tin of foraged sumac, I suddenly had a strong memory of a time in my childhood when it seemed every dish was seasoned with lemon pepper, and knew this would be an ideal place to substitute sumac.

I had thought that lemon pepper was a relic of the past, but a quick survey of my friends quickly revealed that many still use it frequently. I wasted no time in blending a batch of sumac pepper. Not only was it pretty to look at, it was seriously tart, without the aid of the citric acid that it used in many commercial lemon pepper blends. After a few days of testing, I found that sumac pepper was good in all the places you’d expect lemon pepper to excel. Sumac pepper can be sprinkled atop fish, meats, vegetables, and even breads and rice. My favorite place to use sumac pepper is atop fresh warm buttered popcorn.

If you would like to pick your own sumac but worried about confusing it with poison sumac, let me reassure you they are very easy to tell apart. Poison sumac has white berries, whereas all of the edible sumacs have red berry clusters. Sumac berries can be hairy or smooth, depending upon the species.

Sumac in a field. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac in a field. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac grows as a shrub with leaflets that are pinnately compound, which is to say that they are arranged somewhat like a feather, and the berry clusters grow in dense spikes at the end of branches. If you’ve not seen sumac growing before, you might hear the word berry and think of a juicy strawberry. But all the flavor of sumac is on the outside of its small dry berries. This is why the flavor of sumac is greatly diminished after rain or snow.

At peak ripeness, which is usually late summer in my area, I harvest a big basket full of sumac. I simply pack my sumac into a tin, and it keeps quite well. I’m usually able to use it right up through harvest time the following year. Though, one time, it did develop a rancid oil smell after a year.

There is one caution with sumac. It is related to mangoes and cashews, so anyone with strong allergies to those foods should also avoid sumac.

The following recipe calls for ground sumac. Often, the whole berries are ground up and used. I find the central seed of the berry to be unpleasantly hard, even when ground. The seeds can also lend a tannic astringency to recipes. So, I strip my sumac from the branches, and grind the berries in a molcajete. You could also pulse the berries in a spice grinder. Next, shake the ground berries through a sieve. This produces a pink fluff of sumac that is ready to be used in recipes.

Sumac Pepper Blend

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1/3 cup

Ingredients

2 tablespoons ground sumac

2 tablespoons cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon salt (optional)

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic

1/2 teaspoon granulated onion

Directions

Stir all of the ingredients together, and store the sumac pepper in small jar in a cool dark place.

Main photo: Sumac and sumac pepper blend. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Foraged Rosehips Make Cranberries Truly Shine Image

Foraged rosehips are all it takes to transform an ordinary cranberry sauce into a gem for the holiday table. Rosehips really shine when combined with a bright and acidic ingredient, such as cranberries.

The cooked version of rosehip-cranberry sauce is just right with desserts such as cheesecake. When rosehips are stirred into raw chopped cranberries, the resulting relish is a delight with cheese or meats.

I will admit that by this time of year in the Rockies, there aren’t many other wild foods left to harvest. Rosehips, however, are special because they get better after a few strong frosts. These relatives of apples, with the kiss of winter, transform from simply mealy and tart into something richer and sticky-sweet, almost like wine-soaked dried strawberries.

Not only are rosehips one of the only wild edibles to forage in places that experience deep winter, they are easy enough to identify that even kids can help harvest them. Picking rosehips can be as simple as making a trip to your backyard if your garden is graced with roses. All true roses produce edible fruit. The only trick with garden roses is to be certain they have never been sprayed with any chemicals, which would render them inedible.

I prefer to get my rosehips from the wild, as it has been my experience that they have a stronger flavor. I also enjoy picking them during my winter walks, even in the snow. I take a container with me every day as I walk and pick rosehips just until my fingers get cold, sometimes not more than 1/4 cup at a time. Because they are essentially dried fruit on the plant, there’s not much of a rush to harvest. By the end of winter, the weather will have sapped out much of their flavor. But early in the season, a little snow and cold doesn’t degrade the taste of rosehips.

Rosehips in hand. Credit:Wendy Petty

Rosehips in hand. Credit:Wendy Petty

Harvesting rosehips is simple. Look for the reddest and plumpest fruit, and simply pluck them off with your fingers. I live in an arid climate, and rosehips can shrivel up hard as rocks. Those taste fine once they rehydrate, but I still seek out the ones that are like translucent rubies. When stripped from the plant, these rosehips reveal their sticky, gooey insides.

Once harvested, rosehips should be washed in a tub of water, simply to remove dirt and dust that may have been blown onto them as they aged. I then sort through them and discard any that seem damaged or discolored. As a final step, any remaining stems and dried bits of the flowering end can be cut away. But I will admit that I seldom do this, and find that it doesn’t detract from the flavor of the final product.

People with access to giant rosehips the size of marbles prepare them by cutting them in half and scooping out the innards before using the fruit. The fuzzy seeds inside of rosehips can be irritating to the digestive tract. The rosehips that grow in my area are so small that cutting them in half and scooping out the seeds would be a near-impossible task. Instead, I boil and mash the whole fruit, then press the mash through a strainer.

Rosehip-Cranberry Relish

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 24 hours

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

1 cup rosehips, washed

3/4 cup water

1 cup whole cranberries

2 tablespoons honey, or to taste

Pinch of salt

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, combine the rosehips and water over medium heat. Let them simmer for 10 minutes.

2. Use a potato masher to crush the rosehips. This will release the fruit next to the skin and allow it to marry with the water. Continue to simmer the rosehips for another 5 minutes.

3. Pour the mashed rosehips through a strainer, and press the fruit with the back of a spoon. Fruity orange-red water should pass through the strainer, and the fuzzy seeds and skins will be left behind. Reserve the rosehips water.

4. Put the solids back into the pan, barely cover them with water, and allow them to come to a simmer. Pass the rosehips through the strainer a second time. Discard the solids left in the strainer.

5. Quickly rinse out your pan you used to heat the rosehips and return the fruity rosehip water to it. Place the pan over medium heat, and allow it to bubble until it reduces to the thickness of runny ketchup. Remove the pan from the heat, and allow the rosehip paste to cool to room temperature.

6. Meanwhile, use a food processor to grind the raw cranberries into a sandy texture.

7. Combine the reduced rosehips, the chopped raw cranberries, honey and salt. Add more honey if the relish tastes too tart.

8. Allow the rosehip-cranberry relish to sit, covered, in the refrigerator for 24 hours before using it. This will allow the cranberries to soften, and all the flavors to meld.

Rosehip-Cranberry Sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

1 cup whole cranberries

1/4 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

1 1/2 cups water

Reduced rosehip paste

Directions

1. Follow steps 1-5 for Rosehip-Cranberry Relish to create a reduced rosehip paste, set aside.

2. In a small saucepan, combine the whole cranberries, sugar, salt and water. Bring the heat up to medium, and cook the cranberries until they pop and slouch, about 10 minutes.

3. Mix together the cooked cranberries with the reduced rosehip paste. Allow the sauce to cool to room temperature before refrigerating.

Main photo: Rosehips and cranberries in a bowl. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Ethically Raised Heirloom Turkeys For Thanksgiving Image

On a long trip across America’s heartland, I spotted a pair of button eyes peering out at me from a passing semi truck full of livestock. The pig that I had locked eyes with was probably being taken to slaughter. I lost count of how many large-scale animal-transport trucks I saw while traveling Interstate 80 through farm country, each carrying animals, including turkeys for Thanksgiving, shoulder to shoulder, listless as wet carpet.

Those images made for a stunning contrast when I arrived at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich., owned and operated by Kate Spinillo and her husband, Christian.

It looked so peacefully perfect that it might well be an artist-created movie set, from the goats sitting on a kiddie playhouse in a pen nearest the road, to the sweet yellow house with the wrap-around porch, to the pigs eagerly grunting and munching on leftover jack-o’-lanterns and enjoying scratches behind the ears, to the acres of oak and hickory that stretch out at the furthest reaches of the property.

Theirs is the idyllic farm that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) want you to picture when they advertise industrially-raised meat, the same type of  animals that were being transported in those interstate semis. But that sort of advertising is an illusion that attempts to mask the reality of how mass-market animals live and die.

The Spinillos say that putting the finest product out to market begins and ends with happy animals. Selling direct-to-customer and as part of a meat CSA, Ham Sweet Farm provides heritage breeds of pork, beef, chicken, turkey and eggs to their community, including restaurants and a food truck. Amazed by the fact that they are able to maintain their operation while they both work full-time jobs outside the farm, I asked Kate how Ham Sweet Farm came to be.

“It started simply enough, with both of us working on farms, more as an outlet and interest than anything else. But once you start, it gets into your blood. You want the work, the challenge, the tangible reward at the end of a day of work and problem-solving.

“It’s as much about the relationship you have with the land you’re working on or with, as it is about the animals you’re raising or the produce you’re growing. It all falls together into one panoramic picture of the way you want to live your life, and also the way you want the food you eat to live its life.”

While we were enjoying a drink on the front porch and taking in the cornfield across the street, the gang of turkeys strolled in front of us, seemingly with a group goal or destination. With an arresting blend of humor and salt in her voice, Spinillo pointed out the difference between pastured and CAFO turkeys.

“Our turkeys are pretty friendly, and like to climb out of their mobile fencing to parade around the house, the driveway, the shop, various barns, our neighbor’s house, the mailbox and occasionally our front porch.

“The toms also like to get out and torment our big Blue Slate tom, ‘Phil Collins,’ but the joke is on them, because he is a permanent resident of the farm. Being heritage breeds, they retain their abilities to fly, so some of them roost in the trees or on top of our garden fence posts at night. Industrially-raised turkeys grow so fast and have such large breasts that they can hardly walk, let alone fly, toward the end of their lives.”

She explained the turkeys consumers find in most stores are broad-breasted white turkeys, which take about 5 months to raise before they go to the butcher. The Spinillos’ birds, by contrast, hatch in the spring and grow for about nine months before slaughter. They’re smaller than typical turkeys you find in the grocery store. Butterball would consider them “average,” Kate said.

 

Turkeys roaming free at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

Turkeys roaming free at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

“The flavor of our turkey last year, though, was phenomenal. One family worried about the smaller size of our birds, and so purchased an extra breast to serve on Thanksgiving … no one ate it, because our pasture-raised turkey was just that good.”

In an age where some stores put turkeys on sale for as little as 50 cents a pound, the cost of a pasture-raised bird — $9 a pound for a whole turkey — might seem shockingly high to some, but it takes into account the value of what it takes to bring the animal to market.

“Other than pigs, which we are raising to three times the age of the average CAFO pig, turkeys are our greatest investment. Seventy percent of the cost of a Thanksgiving turkey is to cover hard feed costs; the other 30% should theoretically cover the cost of the bird itself, processing, equipment, and your time.”

The percentage is theoretic, she said, because of the amount of human labor it takes to care for them daily for nine months is quite great.

Deeply committed to being a part of the local economy, the Spinillos understand well that not everyone can afford their meat, and go to great lengths to meet the needs of their customers, even arranging payment plans and deliveries for families who need those options. Still, it causes them to flinch when someone tries to imply their product isn’t worth the price.

“People see your heritage bird pricing and balk, but they forget that a turkey is good for multiple meals,” Kate said. “Thanksgiving dinner, leftovers, and then you make soup and stock from the bones. Turkeys should not be a disposable dinner, and we don’t price them like they are.”

Spinillo suggests that one of the easiest and most budget-friendly ways to support a small farm like theirs is to learn to make use of less-popular cuts.

“What’s frustrating is that people love the idea of the farm, they love coming to visit, and I think they love the romantic idea of purchasing directly from the farm raising the meat (or eggs or produce). But everyone wants the cuts that they know — steaks, belly, eight-piece chicken.

“The parts that we cannot GIVE AWAY are things like poultry feet and necks (duck, chicken, turkey), gizzards of all kinds, pork and beef offal (liver, kidney, heart, tongue). These all represent some of the best and most nutritious eating on the animal, as well as the cheapest cuts, but much of it we end up eating ourselves because we cannot give it away, let alone sell it.”

Slow Cooker Turkey Neck Bone Broth

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 24 hours

Yield: 8 cups

Ingredients

1 turkey neck

Any other bony pieces, including feet or tail

1 onion, halved

1 large parsnip, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

10 whole peppercorns

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

10 cups water, or enough to generously cover the ingredients

Directions

1. Place all of the ingredients in a large slow cooker and heat them on low for 4 to 6 hours.

2. Pull out the turkey neck and any other bones that may have meat attached. Pick off the pieces of meat and save them for another meal. Return the bones to the slow cooker and let the bone broth cook on low for an additional 20 hours.

3. Strain out the bones, vegetables and spices. Let the bone broth cool to room temperature before storing it in the refrigerator. It should be quite gelatinous by the time it is chilled. Bone broth also takes well to being frozen and can be a go-to for holiday meals.

Main photo: Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

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