Monday, April 26, 2010

Starting at the Beginning

"We take care of them, and they take care of us."
~Cindy Judd, Judd Ranch

Last weekend I ventured to my hometown of Pomona, Kansas. Before I took the 300-plus-mile trip there, I arranged a visit to a cattle ranch just a mile down Hwy 68 from my parents' house. Judd Ranch is a seed stock operation where they breed cattle, making them the very beginning of the food chain and a great place to start for anyone who cares to trace the origins of their food. The Judd family is  well known in the area for their 700 acres of gorgeous pasture land and their two seasonal auctions: one for bulls and one for females. However, I know the Judds because their oldest son, Nick, was in my grade. In a town as small as Pomona, there is only one class per grade, so you just move from room to room (subject to subject) every hour with the same group of 20 students for over 12 years of your life. So getting to know your classmates is not only easy, it's unavoidable.

The morning I arrived at Judd Ranch I met up with Cindy, the matriarch of the family and my tour guide for the day. It turned out to be an ideal day for a visit; the weather was beautiful, the whole Judd family was working so I got to see everyone, and it was the first day that the herd was re-entering the pasture for the season. Cindy explained to me how their operation worked, including some basic information on cattle breeding, as well as how their cattle are cared for. From March to November, the cattle at Judd Ranch graze on native grasses, and for the other four to five months, when there is no grass on the land to be eaten, they are fed a mixture of grains grown on the same lands owned by Judd Ranch.

The feed is made from a mixture of corn and alfalfa that is fermented on the property. It smells very much like olive tapenade, and the cows absolutely love it!

Since the cows were being turned out on the grass during my visit, we took a rambunctious little cart called a mule out to the many pastures and saw how the cows live for most of the year. It was very nice to see the cows happy and healthy, roaming on bright green grass and playing with their siblings or feeding from their mothers.

We also took a drive through an alfalfa field...

...and stopped to nibble on a bit of it, which tastes a lot like wheat grass juice, if you've tried it, or sort of like snap peas.

Cindy also showed me a watering technique they fashioned, in which they have piped water underground to large overturned tractor tires, so the cows can have access to fresh running water.

However, probably the most valuable thing I learned while I was at Judd Ranch is how eager family farms and ranches are to have people come visit them and learn about the origins of their food. In an industry where factory farms are the norm, and those factory farms are shrouded with secrecy, it is good to know that there are places like this where you can go to personally connect with your food.

If you're in the Pomona area (1 hour from Topeka, 30 minutes from Lawrence, and 1+ hours from the Kansas City area), I highly encourage you to contact Judd Ranch and schedule a tour. You can learn more about Judd Ranch at or by following them on Facebook.

If you're not in the Pomona area, I also suggest contacting local farms and ranches near you and inquiring about going on a tour. It's both educational and refreshing.

I will now close this post with.....(drumroll)......more pictures of happy cows!!!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Basic Training #3: Roasted Veggies (Or, Heat and Surface Area! Heat and Surface Area! Heat and Surface Area!)

All you need is salt, pepper and olive oil and two things to keep mind: HEAT and SURFACE AREA. Heat and surface area. Heat and surface area. There are no more typographical ways for me to emphasize this, but imagine there are, and imagine I'm using them.

~Francis Lam, food writer for,
on roasting vegetables

Ok, roasting...something I’ve never been too clear on. How is it different from baking? What are the basic principles of roasting? What can and can’t be roasted? So when I magically bumped into two online articles on roasting in one day, I figured it was time to demystify the entire subject.

After reading Francis Lam’s article “How to Master Roasted Vegetables” on, I decided I would start with veggies and follow his advice: mind the heat and surface area (see quote above for dramatic representation of their importance). Lam insists you can roast nearly any vegetable, but he offers up a list of suggestions with how to cut each specimen for maximum roasting potential.

I chose three of my own favorite veggies based on varying factors: Brussels sprouts because they are presently abundant and healthy looking at the Soulard Farmers Market; Leeks because my good friend Chris suggested them; and Beets because they are one of my all-time favorite veggies and have the most deeply sweet and earthy flavor when roasted. (I know this because beets are the only vegetable I’ve ever roasted. However, after reading Lam’s principles of roasting, I think I was actually just baking them.)

In the NY Times article “Roasted Beets, Now Stainless” author Melissa Clark makes the promise of no fuchsia-stained hands once the deed is done. It is most commonly recommended to prepare beets in their skin because when cooked the skin falls right off. However, she posits that peeling the beets first prevents handling them when they are hot and their juices are primed to stain your fingers. I followed her advice, and my report is that there is still a bit of juice in the pre-cooked peeling stage that will spot your fingers, but it is NOTHING compared to the full-on Violet Beauregarde (Willy Wonka, anyone?) effect of peeling them when cooked. 

Alright, so I set about roasting vegetables. Lam’s principles of roasting are essentially thus:

1. Roasting is the presence of carmelization that comes from high heat while being baked. So the more carmelized you want your vegetables, the higher the heat you use. Of course, too high a heat and you get burning. So adjust the heat based on the level of brownness you want in your veggies. 400º is standard, so adjust from there based on your preference.

2. The amount of surface area directly touching the pan or exposed to the hot air will result in more carmelization. So don’t pile veggies on top of each other in your roasting pan, and remember that the smaller you cut your veggies the quicker they will cook through and brown on the outside.

With these rules in hand, I got started. I halved both the leeks and the Brussels sprouts because they are both leafy and fragile, so keeping their roots relatively undisturbed helped they stay in tact during the cooking process. I had read to cut the base of the Brussels sprouts after halving them, however I noticed this led to a lot of lost leaves, so I ignored that suggestion after trying it once. The beets I cut into approximately ¾-inch cubes.

I coated all the vegetables with olive oil, salt and pepper, and started roasting at 400º. Being the smallest, I roasted the beets first. I only cooked them at half the recommended time and still felt as though they came out a little too brown and dehydrated.

The leeks and Brussels sprouts I roasted at the same time. I kept the leeks in for the recommended amount of time, and found the bottoms to be perfectly browned and the tops to be just slightly too dark.

The Brussels sprouts were the shining example of the night. Since the outer leaves get very dark very quickly, they fall away when handled and leave a lighter browning on the leaves below them. However, it turns out that having to cut the base off after the sprouts have roasted requires a significant amount of time, in which the sprouts get cold. But sprinkle a little grated parm on top, and don’t they look pretty?

This is one lesson that’s going to take more practice to master.