Articles in Farmers

Caramelized onions make any burger better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

At a time of year when most people are fixated on berries and peaches, corn and tomatoes, it’s also the season to get excited about onions — not just any old allium but a heritage sweet onion harvested by hand in Walla Walla, Washington.

Walla Walla Sweets are the unheralded heirloom stars of summertime. Juicy, mild and sweet, they are at their best in all of the great (and easy) meals of the season: grilled with sausages, caramelized for burgers, sliced raw for salads and more.

Fresh and delicate in terms of both flavor and handling, Walla Walla Sweets are in season right now — and with a very limited supply from a handful of family growers, they won’t last long.

Older than Vidalias

Long before Walla Walla became renowned as an American Viticultural Area, this valley in southeastern Washington was the agricultural hub for a surprisingly sweet onion brought to the region from Corsica by a French soldier named Pete Pieri. According to all accounts, Pieri immigrated to Walla Walla with the seed in the late 19th century and began cultivating it commercially in 1900.

Grower Michael Locati’s great-grandfather, Joe, worked for Pieri for four years before going out on his own in 1909. He joined other Italian immigrant families, mainly from Milan and Calabria, who settled in this valley to become small-scale produce farmers, cultivating a seasonal onion now known as the Walla Walla Sweet.

Four generations later, Michael — along with his father and uncle — grows these heirlooms on 60 acres of Locati Farms and co-owns a packing and shipping arm called Walla Walla River Packing Co. Despite these modernizations, this is the same specialty onion, hand-selected by the family for over a century.

That’s a fair bit longer than that other famous sweet onion, Vidalia, a hybrid cultivated in Georgia since the 1930s. The Walla Walla “still has that heirloom genome,” said Locati.

Onion botany

A field worker harvesting onions by hand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee

A field worker harvesting onions by hand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee

It’s natural to think that sugar content is what makes Walla Walla Sweets exceptional. Not so. Their mildness has to do with the fact that they contain about half the amount of pyruvic acid that gives yellow storage onions their bite and makes you cry.

“This geographical area is very low in natural sulfur,” Locati said. The sulfur content in the soil is a catalyst to the production of pyruvic acid, he explained. “So these naturally low sulfur soils allow for these onions to be really sweet.”

Walla Walla Sweets are planted in early fall. They overwinter in snow-covered fields, then sprout and additional onion starts are transplanted in the spring. By mid-June, harvest has begun and continues through late August.

“Onions are ready when the leaves start laying down,” said Dan McClure, who began growing organic Walla Walla Sweets in 2007 with his wife Sarah. The couple currently raises over 800 tons on 27 acres at Walla Walla Organics and plans to scale up production, although the labor is even more arduous than many other crops.

Why’s that?

“No mechanical process yet exists that won’t damage them,”  McClure said. Nearly as large as softballs and weighing up to two pounds, these globular onions are delicate, with thin skins and a high water content that make them prone to bruising.

So workers harvest them entirely by hand. Carefully packed into boxes, the onions are then cured just until the necks dry out and the outer layer of turns amber. Still, they have a short shelf life — a couple of weeks at most, according to McClure.

Endangered onions?

For a community once famous for this varietal, it’s a big blow that acreage has dropped within the past five or so years from 1,000 acres to about 500, according to Kathryn Fry-Trommald, executive director of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee.

Compared to Vidalia’s 15,000 acres, this onion market is small potatoes. Urban sprawl (“there’s a Wal-mart now where there were onion fields,” said Fry-Trommald), consolidation in agriculture and labor pressures are all factors, as is the fact that many of those “old Italian families” are no longer in farming.

Another major threat is the competition from hybrid sweet onions — some mechanically harvested and higher in pyruvic acid — grown from Arizona to Texas. These are available year-round at much lower prices than Walla Walla Sweets.

In 1995, after discovering that other Washington-grown onions were being sold as counterfeit Walla Walla Sweets, the growers obtained a federal marketing order to protect this specialty onion, in the same way that heritage foods from Italy must be certified as locally grown and packaged.

For farmers like Locati and McClure, it’s hard to earn a living with a seasonal, fresh market onion. But they say the process of hand selection and hand harvesting is worth it for the allium’s singular qualities. There’s no sharp bite, and it has a complex flavor all its own marked by a startling sweetness.

While you don’t have to try Michael Locati’s method of tasting them raw in the field, this is a true “slicer” for using raw in salads and salsas or on burgers and sandwiches. You can grill, roast, sauté, or caramelize Walla Walla Sweets, too — just don’t wait.

Ways to cook and use sweet onions

Onions caramelizing in the pan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

Onions caramelizing in the pan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

Grill: Use a grill basket to cook large sliced or chopped onions on a hot grill until nicely charred. Toss and continue grilling until softened and translucent. Alternatively, grill thick onion slices on a well-scraped grill grate until grill marks appear; flip and cook the other side until soft and translucent. Toss onions with sliced and grilled zucchini, portabello mushrooms and red peppers seasoned with salt and pepper, a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a side dish with grilled steaks, chicken, pork chops or fish.

Roast: Place trimmed and peeled whole onions into a greased roasting pan. Rub well with olive oil and season with salt, pepper and fresh thyme. Roast at 425 F until brown and fork tender, about 1 hour, and serve with roast pork or beef.

Sauté: Slice peeled onions thinly. Heat a sauté pan over high heat with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onions and season with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until they soften and begin to brown. Add 1 bunch fresh, washed spinach or chard, another pinch of salt and ground pepper. Cover and let steam until the greens are wilted. Remove the cover, stir well and serve as a side dish with grilled meats or fish.

Caramelize: Slice peeled onions thinly. Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until they soften. Add a large pinch of salt, reduce the heat to low and continue cooking, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan every 15 minutes until the onions turn very soft, like jam, and the color of brown sugar, about 1 hour. Serve on hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches or pizza.

Main photo: Caramelized onions make any burger better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

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Planted crops in the midst of Agritopia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

We’ve all heard the saying “it takes a village.” But communities are drawn together for many reasons. Some cling tight to tradition with activities like barbecues and Fourth of July parades. Others share neighborhoods with backyards that spill onto golf courses, lakes and swimming pools. And then there’s Agritopia.

“If you live here, it just feels different,” business manager William Johnston said.

Cultivating an agrihood

A citrus display at Agritopia's farm stand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

A citrus display at Agritopia’s farm stand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

It is different. Located outside of Phoenix, in the little-known city of Gilbert, Agritopia is what’s called an agrihood, or suburban neighborhood planned around a working farm. Jim and Virginia Johnston purchased the farm in 1960. They built a home; grew crops, including cotton, wheat, barley, corn, alfalfa and sugar beets; and raised three boys. Time went on. The Johnston children grew up, and two continued the family farming tradition. The once-rural area surrounding the farm grew, and the third son, Joe, an engineer, got an idea to reinvent the place he called home.

“The kernel of the idea was in 1998, when I started thinking that I’d like to do a restaurant in our house that served produce from the farm: that was the ‘agri’ part. That was the extent of the idea,”  Joe said. “However, that idea was shortly followed by the notion that I’d like to live close to where I worked. That opened up a bunch of ideas, because we had a clean sheet of paper to design the kind of community we’d like to live in.”

Agritopia stretches 160 acres and has more than 450 houses. Four generations of the Johnston family, along with 1,500 or so other folks, call it home. At its center is the certified organic farm (where Jim and Virginia still live) and more than 11 acres of permanent urban farmland.

A cornucopia of crops

Romanesco broccoli, a favored neighborhood crop. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Romanesco broccoli, a favored neighborhood crop. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

“During the year we grow over 200 varieties of field and orchard crops,” William Johnston said. “It’s important for families to grow up together and understand food and farming.”

The farm bounty is diverse — and delicious. Along with Medjool dates and olive groves, there are citrus, apple, peach and plum groves. Other crops include cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli, herbs, a variety of lettuces and tomatoes of assorted varieties.

Enjoying the fruits of their labor

The local coffeehouse. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

The local coffeehouse. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

The same-day harvest is readily available to residents and Agritopia visitors. But how folks get their farm-fresh fix varies. What was once an old tractor building is now an airy cafe called The Coffee Shop. The Johnston family homestead has a new lease on life as a modern diner called Joe’s Farm Grill. Whenever possible, fruit, vegetables and herbs come from The Farm at Agritopia.

Then there’s The Farm Stand. Open 24 hours a day, the stand is not staffed. All purchases are made using the honor system. Grab what you want, put your cash or check in an envelope and drop it in the pay slot. And residents can grow their own bounty by renting one of the more than 40 plots in the community garden.

Rural life, redefined

Coming home to roost. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Coming home to roost. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

When most city slickers envision life on a farm, they think of solitude. At Agritopia, rows of vegetables sprout within view of homes and the neighborhood school. With the antics of school recess and chickens clucking in the background, a cozy neighborhood feeling prevails in this unique slice of Arizona farm country, where houses have front porches and streets are lined with trees and sidewalks.

“We like the fact that people can kind of just wander and feel that sense of exploration,” William Johnston said. “A lot of people compare it to Mayberry.”

Main photo: A citrus display at Agritopia’s farm stand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann 

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Glynwood chicken, brined and peppered and simply delicious. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrew Lipton

New York’s Hudson Valley is fertile terrain for organic farmers. Organic is a gentler, more gracious way of farming, seemingly old-fashioned when compared to the prevailing industrial example, where chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides are used. When asked by those in corporate farming, “How are you going to feed the world?” Ken Kleinpeter of Glynwood Farm in Cold Spring, New York, speaks for many organic farmers when he answers: “I don’t have to feed the world, I have to feed my community, and someone could feed their community, and someone else could feed their community. That’s how we’re going to feed the world.”

And that’s what happened during Labor Day weekend in Philipstown, New York, when a 300-foot-long table was set to celebrate organic food and the community. The Made in Philipstown Banquet carried through the local theme, from the plates to the benches, flowers to the art, food to the music. Everything was locally made, home thrown, or homegrown and organic.

The free banquet for 400, held at the Garrison Landing on the Hudson River about 50 miles north of New York City, was the brainchild of Garrison locals Stacey Farley and Carinda Swann. “And it all started with the plates,” Farley says. “I looked around my kitchen and noted that none of my plates were made in the U.S.A. Seems like if we are going to all the trouble to grow organic fruits and vegetables and grass-fed meats locally for farm to table, why not serve this precious and delicious food on homemade ceramic plates!”

So local artist and potter Lisa Knaus set about over the summer teaching people in the community to make plates. The ensuing meal, served on the plates, included locally grown vegetables, homemade mozzarella, baguettes, chicken and fruit tarts. What ensued was a lovely, generous community meal, a summer’s last prayer before fall, and a gathering of people who will long remember its grace and beauty.

Main photo: Glynwood Farm provided the locally focused meal’s chicken, which was brined and peppered and simply delicious. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrew Lipton

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Roopam Lunia, director of marketing at the company in Imperfect Produce in San Francisco’s East Bay, shows off an eggplant culled in the packing sheds. Promoters have struggled with descriptors such as “ugly,” “misshapen” or “funny-looking” -- but how about “practically perfect”? Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

Would you like to reduce agricultural waste, save water, support innovation, lower your grocery bill and eat farm-fresh produce all at the same time? Imperfect Produce in San Francisco’s East Bay has you covered.

In “Wasted,” a report for the Natural Resources Defense Council, scientist Dana Gunder estimated that 40% of all the food produced in the United States is lost due to inefficiencies in the supply chain. Her analysis showed that, in the case of fresh produce, these losses occur before it even hits retail stores, the greatest percentage happening in the field and post-harvest in the packing sheds — primarily as a means of meeting customers’ “expectation of cosmetic perfection.”

Three committed food-waste experts — Ben Chesler, Ben Simon and Ron Clark — founded Imperfect Produce to reduce this waste by developing a supply and distribution network that brings physically “flawed” yet edible, in-season fruits and vegetables culled from packing plants directly to customers’ homes via a weekly delivery service. As the slideshow explains, it’s a perfect solution.

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Main photo: Roopam Lunia, director of marketing at the company Imperfect Produce in San Francisco‘s East Bay, shows off an eggplant culled in the packing sheds. Promoters have struggled with descriptors such as “ugly,”misshapen” or “funny-looking” — but how about “practically perfect”Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

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A true farmers market features local producers, not wholesalers, so the produce you see is all in season. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

Farmers markets are everywhere. Thanks to a rapid expansion in recent years, there are more than 8,000 farmers markets in the U.S., making it possible for almost everyone to buy fresh food directly from farmers. But with so many stalls and so many different foods, farmers markets can feel overwhelming. How do you find the best produce? Who’s who? And what’s what?

Follow our slideshow to learn the tricks to getting the most out of shopping at your local farmers market. In no time, you will be addicted to the super fresh fruits and vegetables and the seemingly endless variety. Shopping for produce and the other delicacies you can find at a farmers market will become a joy instead of a chore.

More from Zester Daily:

» Shopping for a farmer at the farmers market
» Hey growers, be honest with your farmers market customers
» Changing farmers markets
» How to cook up your own romance in a French market

Main photo: A true farmers market features local producers, not wholesalers, so the produce you see is all in season. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

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On the Arrow T Ranch near Prescott, Arizona, the eponymous family behind Kelly Beef raises 100% grass-fed cattle. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

Just like family members, Kelly Beef cattle are raised with care and love. At the Arrow T Ranch in the Williamson Valley outside Prescott, Arizona, Tom Kelly and his wife, Tammy, bring together their relatives to work and gain expertise in treating animals, and human beings, right.

Tom and Tammy Kelly’s extended family and old friends gather for a roundup. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

Tom and Tammy Kelly’s extended family and old friends gather for a roundup. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

Tom Kelly was born in northwestern Arizona, where ranches are measured in not acres but square miles. He always wanted to be a rancher. But he realized that the landowners were often “attorneys from Phoenix or Wickenburg” — in other words, well-to-do gentlemen farmers. So Tom became a lawyer in order to finance his dream of becoming a rancher — and succeeded. Now he produces 100% grass-fed beef in the old-fashioned way while making sure that skills and experience needed to raise cows is passed on to another generation.

Home on the (free) range

The herd stretches out over subirrigated meadows. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

The herd stretches out over subirrigated meadows. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

The cattle are raised on two different spreads. Their first year is spent on the Kellys’ La Cienega Ranch, 130 square miles of mountainous open range in the Mojave desert. The calves thrive in this uncontaminated habitat, grazing on 27 types of forage. When the animals weigh 450 pounds, they are moved to the lush subirrigated grassland of the Arrow T Ranch. For the past 70 years, the native grasses in these verdant meadows have been nurtured and the invasive grasses culled without pesticides or herbicides.

Herding day on the ranch

Cole Looper runs a calf into the correct pen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

Cole Looper runs a calf into the correct pen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

Late last summer, I joined Tom for a roundup — which might more accurately be called a “push-up” — to the sorting pens. For these events, Tammy’s brother, Kasey Looper, brings his wife, Tyler, and children Cole, 12, Rio, 10, and Sage, 8, to work alongside family friend Mark Mingus and fiancée Savannah Lindau. There are no clouds of dust, no thundering hooves. What appears to be a quiet Sunday ride with his young nieces and nephews is in fact a carefully choreographed dance, as their horses “push” the young cows in the right direction from a distance of up to several hundred yards; the movement is gentle rather than aggressive, because stressed cows are hard to handle and even tougher to eat.

When the cattle reach the sorting pens, Tom allows time for a family lesson. The children learn about the sorting process, which Tom describes as “a conversation and comparison of opinions” about the quality and potential of each calf. Some are returned to La Cienega as breeding stock and others enter the commercial beef pipeline — but the best calves are selected to remain on the grass, fattening up naturally for up to 18 months until they are ready to be sold. Cole is already acquiring the skills that must become second nature to every cowboy, such as “heading and heeling” the calf. As dad Kasey throws one lasso over the animal’s head, Cole quickly lassoes its two back legs, or heels, on his first throw, displaying the accuracy that is needed to do the job gently and safely for both the riders and the calf, which can now be branded.

Looking back, moving forward

Tammy Kelly at her retail store The Rancher’s Wife, where Kelly Beef is sold. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

Tammy Kelly at her retail store The Rancher’s Wife, where Kelly Beef is sold. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

As small-scale producers, Tammy and Tom are developing a following for Kelly Beef one client at a time. In her Prescott store, The Rancher’s Wife, Tammy explains the more-unusual cuts of meat, providing instruction and recipes to help customers make the most of the nutrient-rich, almost purple meat. Don’t assume that health-conscious urban foodies are their best customers: Locals who still have roots in the agricultural community buy half or a quarter of a calf, sometimes on the hoof. They value knowing every player in the supply chain and are comfortable cooking every cut of meat.

But the Kellys are not trying to return to a lost agrarian paradise; they are looking to the future. They believe the demand for grass-fed beef is growing and that “knowledge-rich farming,” to use a term coined by rancher-author Allan Nation, will lead a younger generation to good breeding and good grazing management. That much was clear from my visit to Arrow T, as I obeyed his instructions about photographing the roundup from my car discreetly: no raised voices, no sudden movements that might spook the herd. Next time, though, I want to be riding beside him through the thigh-high red-wheat grass, watching the cows stroll back to pasture.

Main photo: On the Arrow T Ranch near Prescott, Arizona, the eponymous family behind Kelly Beef raises 100% grass-fed cattle. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

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Sheep grazing in Adelaida Cellars' Bobcat Crossing vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Deborah Sowerby

Start a sheep farm to lower your taxable income? That’s what Deborah Sowerby did when she launched Olive Ewe Ranch in 2005 in Bradley, California, 20 miles northeast of Paso Robles, the noted wine region on the Central Coast.

The idea started when Sowerby’s husband, Paul, the national sales manager at Adelaida Cellars winery in the mountainous Adelaida District of Paso Robles, brought home a book about it one day and suggested she try it.

For the stay-at-home mom, it sounded like a good opportunity, and the book provided the guidance she needed to get started. Because Sowerby enjoys lamb, she opted to raise a good meat breed, starting with four ewes that grew to a flock of 100. Her sheep of choice is the medium-sized hair breed called Dorpers, which are easy to train and flock well. “As a meat breed, they are mild and buttery in flavor. They don’t have strong flavor like the wool breed,” she said.

Sheep grazing benefits local wineries

Sheep grazing in a vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Deborah Sowerby

Sheep grazing in a vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Deborah Sowerby

In the past four years, the meat business has morphed into a Sheep in the Vineyard program, in which sheep help control weeds in vineyards and reduce the carbon footprint by cutting back on fuel emissions, Sowerby said.

She got the idea to start the program after she was approached by vintners looking for a holistic way to farm. With Sheep in the Vineyard, grazing sheep clear weeds and other invasive ground cover that can deplete soil’s nutrients. The grazing helps restore soil vitality and even nourishes the vines.

Sowerby’s sheep have found homes in some top-notch wineries in Paso Robles, among them Adelaida Cellars, Tablas Creek, Booker Vineyards, Ambyth, Dover Canyon and Villa Creek.

“A 100-pound sheep deposits 4 pounds of fertilizer daily,” she said of another benefit to Sheep in the Vineyard. “Over a five-month period, 20 sheep deposited 12,000 pounds in the 7-acre Bobcat Crossing Vineyard.”

Bobcat Crossing is part of the Adelaida Cellars’ 168-acre ranch that is home to 24 sheep, a couple of alpacas and a guardian llama named “Lliam.”

Sheep in the Vineyard was initiated at Adelaida Cellars. “There was so much mustard and vineyards adding to the biodiversity,” she noted. In addition to the benefits to the health of the vineyards, the sheep are also a draw for the winery’s visitors.

Initially, Sowerby’s sheep were brought in from her ranch after the grape harvest, grazing in the vineyards from October to March. Soon, though, she decided to leave the flock year-round so they could graze in the walnut orchards and mustard fields between March and October.

“For two years now, this is home to 24 Dorpers,” she said of the Adelaida Cellars ranch. Of this herd, six are owned by Adelaida Cellars, while the rest belong to Sowerby.

Ill effects of California drought

Sheep farmer Deborah Sowerby feeding her flock some grain as a treat. Credit: Copyright 2015 Mira Honeycutt

Sheep farmer Deborah Sowerby feeding her flock some grain as a treat. Credit: Copyright 2015 Mira Honeycutt

The drought in California affects the sheep and Sowerby’s plans for the future. Each year, Olive Ewe Ranch attempts to grow a field of forage mix (oats, wheat and barley) with the hope that sufficient rain will fall so they can cut and bale it for supplement feed, along with purchased alfalfa, which is a good source of protein for the flock.

“The reality is with several years of drought, growing a crop based on the whims of Mother Nature to grant us sufficient moisture is like rolling the dice,” Sowerby said.

Sowerby’s work in agriculture work belies her fashion background. Previously, her only relationship with wool was with fabrics and textiles. As a design and merchandising specialist, the former Orange County resident’s travels took her around the world on Princess Cruises and working for Giorgio Armani boutiques. Her lifestyle changed when she moved with Paul to the Central Coast 20 years ago. They purchased their 40-acre property nine years ago.

Olive Ewe Ranch has expanded to the point that she has now partnered with Mary Rees, another sheep producer, to create a comprehensive program that not only supplies sheep but also training and assistance specific to the wineries. While some wineries rent their herds, others raise their own flocks.

Breed recommendations for sheep farming

A sheep in a mustard field. Credit: Copyright 2015 Mira Honeycutt

A sheep in a mustard field. Credit: Copyright 2015 Mira Honeycutt

When clients look for recommendations for a particular breed — more sheep breeds are available than any other type of livestock — Sowerby suggests Dorpers. “It’s possible to triple the flock’s size in one year (with Dorpers) since they have the ability to lamb year-round,” she said.

In addition, they shed and don’t require shearing, which can be expensive. Sowerby also advises picking a sheep species based on the desired taste. The species fall into two categories — hair breeds and wool breeds. The wool breeds have a more lanolin flavor that becomes more pronounced as the animals age, while hair breeds maintain their softer, buttery flavor.

Olive Ewe Ranch Lamb Sliders With Aioli

Olive Ewe Ranch Lamb Sliders With Aioli. Credit: Copyright 2015 Deborah Sowerby

Olive Ewe Ranch Lamb Sliders With Aioli. Credit: Copyright 2015 Deborah Sowerby

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

For the lamb burgers:

1 pound ground lamb

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

For the carmelized onions:

2 tablespoons butter

2 medium onions, finely sliced

2 tablespoons thyme

3 cloves of garlic, minced

2 shallots, minced

1/2 cup chicken stock

1/2 cup Adelaida Cellars Syrah (or a full-bodied red wine)

For the aioli:

6 cloves of garlic, finely minced

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 egg yolks, at room temperature

1 tablespoon mayonnaise (optional)

1 cup olive oil

For assembling the sliders:

8 slider buns, gently seared on the grill

2 cups arugula

8 slices Gruyere cheese

Directions

For the burgers:

1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Form into eight small patties.

2. Brush lightly with olive oil and grill until desired doneness.

For the carmelized onions:

1. Heat butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and thyme. Let the onions brown, turning occasionally, 15 minutes. Add garlic and shallots, continue cooking, turning occasionally, for another 3 minutes.

2. Add the stock and cook until the mixture is reduced to a brown color but not scorched. Then add red wine and continue to reduce until the onions turn light brown and caramelize, about 10 to 15 minutes.

3. Set aside and warm before serving.

For the aioli:

1. Put garlic and salt in a mortar and mash with a pestle to form a paste.

2. Place in a bowl and add egg yolks. Whisk gently.

3. If using, add the mayonnaise to the bowl and mix. (For foolproof aioli, this helps the binding process.)

4. Slowly start adding olive oil a few teaspoons at a time while whisking, until all the oil is added. The end result will be a mayonnaise-like consistency. Aioli can be refrigerated for up to five days.

For assembling the sliders:

1. Apply a thin layer of aioli to both sides of the warmed buns.

2. Place a lamb patty on the bottom portion of the bun, followed by a slice of Gruyere, a heaping teaspoon of hot caramelized onions and then a few leaves of arugula. Cover with the top portion of the bun.

Recommended wine pairings

Adelaida Cellars’ Anna’s Vineyard Syrah or select among other Paso Robles Syrahs, including Ecluse, Anglim, Tablas Creek or one of the full-bodied Paso Robles blends from Linne Calodo.

Main photo: Sheep grazing in Adelaida Cellars’ Bobcat Crossing vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Deborah Sowerby

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The accidental oasis that is China Ranch date farm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

China Ranch is a thriving oasis of boutique date palms that began with the whimsical planting of an ornamental garden nearly a century ago. To the casual traveler driving north from Baker to Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park in California, it is nearly invisible; you must look out for the signs for the Old Spanish Trail and follow it into a steep canyon, through bare, rough hills and exhausted talc and gypsum mines. There, watered by a creek running south to the Amargosa River, is the improbable sight of 1,500 fruit-bearing trees.

China Ranch 100 years ago

In 1920, Vonola Modine moved with her husband from nearby Shoshone to the property then also known as The Chinaman’s Ranch after an industrious, possibly mythical Chinese rancher called Ah Foo. She wanted some trees to line their new roadway and ordered seeds from the date industry burgeoning near Mecca in the Coachella Valley. They arrived in a wooden box by rail. She had never seen a date palm nor tasted a date nor heard the old adage that the fruits “like their feet in water and their heads in fire.”

The Modines wound up selling China Ranch shortly after the palms were planted. For the next 50 years, successive owners’ attempts to establish hog, sheep and alfalfa farms all failed — even as the original date palms flourished into magnificent trees. In the 1970s, Vonola’s relatives by marriage, the Brown family, repurchased the land — and in 1989, Brian Brown, her grandnephew, realized he had the “water and fire” to create the perfect conditions for a viable date farm. He and his wife, Bonnie, began focusing all their efforts on developing and expanding the garden.

China Ranch today

The original seeds sent to China Ranch were brought to California by agricultural pioneers bearing offshoots from Algeria, Iraq, Tunisia, Baluchistan, Morocco and Egypt. But date palms grown from seeds never replicate the parent plant, so the trees in the original grove yield hybrid dates that are unique in the market. Brown has continued to reproduce these happy accidents, including the dark, moist Black Beauty; the sweet Gourmet; and the soft, caramel-colored China Ranch Hybrid. The Browns also introduced new date palms and now have 15 varieties such as Dayri, Halawy, Bahri, Hayany and Khadrawy growing on 25 acres. Their crop is in sharp contrast to that of the huge commercial enterprises, which tend only to produce the Medjools and Deglet Noors that your grandmother served at Christmas.

Brown works eight days a week: It is hard physical labor, from trimming the crowns, and battling 4-inch thorns to clearing the offshoots and pollinating the female trees by hand. And help is scarce in the harsh Death Valley environment. There are no palmeros, as the skilled workers who have enabled date production in the Coachella Valley for nearly a century are called, here. Some dates are harvested in the khalal stage, just before they ripen, and others at ripeness; the entire harvest period extends from August to February. The work during these six months can be punishing; in late summer, the temperature can soar to 120 F and the black flies bite through your clothing.

The fruit of family labor

Then the picked fruit must be sorted. Perfect specimens are for eating, while the funky-looking ones are for cooking, eventually macerated to produce a date paste used by bakers, raw-food chefs and upscale Las Vegas restaurants that value local sourcing. And thanks to the wild success of the cookbook “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, home cooks are in hot pursuit of ingredients such as date molasses too. Specialty-food agents come to China Ranch in search of unusual dates to supply stores all over California, while employees at the ranch store make converts of casual visitors with cool, thick date shakes and date-nut bread baked daily from Bonnie Brown’s secret recipe. Bonnie also runs an eclectic retail shop and an online mail-order operation that ships gift boxes of fresh dates all over the country.

The farm has an unexpected sideline as well. The Dayri palm, originally from Egypt, puts out long, straight, symmetrical fronds that make perfect lulavs, which are used in the Jewish celebration of Sukkot. For the past seven years, rabbis have come from as far as New York to select and cut some 300 of these fronds. Despite their inconsistent harvest and light yield, Dayris will always be grown here.

Little did Vonola Modine know that her ornamental trees would be an inspiration to Brian Brown nearly 70 years after she planted them. She returned to China Ranch in 1991 to see the glorious mature palms that now line the path leading to the Browns’ great adobe home — and you should see them, too. The setting is bizarre, but the dates are sublime.

Main photo: The accidental oasis that is China Ranch date farm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

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