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The Value of a Team, Important Reads, and Cookies

The ice is almost off the pond.  All of the ice fishing shacks are off of Lake Max.  Lucky friends are making maple (and black walnut) syrup. We're almost done pruning fruit trees, and the greenhouse is filling up.  Spring must be right around the corner!

We trust you're feeling it as well.  And you're probably pretty excited about all the fresh new seasonal produce about to hit your plate in the season ahead.  I'm often asked how folks can learn to cook seasonally, locally, and creatively.  With such hints of the new season's produce looming on the horizon, now seems the time to do some "spring training."

To that end, I'm going to take a few weeks to review some of the foodie books I think everyone should own.  These aren't necessarily the exciting new releases publishers and authors are marketing, but, rather, influential tomes that have had a profound influence on how I approach food and eating.  Each of these selections is incredibly helpful for building both cooking skills and repertoire.  Pick up a handful of them, put them to use, and I guarantee you'll find new inspiration and enjoyment in your cooking.

So, this week, we'll review Cookwise by Shirley O. Corriher, as well as share a delicious cookie recipe from the book.  But, before the fun, a serious conversation: a look at the value of farm labor, and what that means for the future of small scale agriculture as well as  the Hole in the Woods Farm team.

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Home delivery | Thursday     Tuesday, 10pm*
Pickup @ Culver Farmers' Market | Saturday     Thursday, 10pm
*Sourdough orders for delivery require an additional 24 hours
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Farm Work and the Myth of "Unskilled" Labor

Earlier this week, I was reading the Good Food Jobs Newsletter (issue 547).  GFJ is a job listing site for the sustainable food sector, focusing on food security and sustainability.  Historically, most of the jobs they've listed have been for small farms or entrepreneurial-minded small businesses in the food industry.  However, they recently made a decision to no longer allow postings for unpaid internships, apprenticeship programs, or any other position which pays below minimum wage, shifting more of their listings to hospitality groups and food manufacturers, away from farms. 

They've taken a lot of criticism for this decision.  A large percentage of small farms, including those run by the "luminaries" and "heroes" of the sustainable agriculture movement, survive on the basis of unpaid labor.  In theory, they provide an educational service, with labor given in return.  Some have justifiably argued that a properly designed internship program requires more time and effort of the farmer than the labor provided by an intern - a little work is the least they should offer to re-pay the farmer!  But, in truth, only a small minority of these programs are well-designed internship programs.  "Interns" are usually little more than contracted volunteers.  Any educational value derived from their "internship" is by happenstance, as their tasks are designated solely by what labor the farm needs, not by what the intern might learn.

The pervasiveness of this exploitation of interns and underpaid labor on farms is evident in the drastic shift in listed jobs since they instituted the policy change.  But it also reveals a problem we don't like to admit.  People like to romanticize farming and farmers.  We like to engage in a little hero worship for a handful of celebrity farmers.  But, we are unwilling to value farm work itself, and by extension the people who pursue it, with a level of compensation commensurate with the value they create?  Typically, no.  The folks at Good Food Jobs place the blame on American agriculture's history in slavery, along with the myth of unskilled labor, a means of devaluing workers as a justification for low wages.
"When farmers are struggling to maintain their own living, it has a trickle-down effect where the systems in place - in this case, a U.S. Agricultural system built on slave labor - are not what someone would necessarily choose to maintain, yet they feel trapped in a cycle of the status quo. Who has the time or effort or energy to envision something different when you are fighting to save this year's crop from a climate disaster, as just one example?

"As we consider solutions, we keep coming back to the dual issue of wages and respect. As one newsletter reader recently shared:

"'We could keep and draw in so many more talented people if there were real opportunities to make farming a career instead of an improbable scenario that prevents many from entering and for those who do, a sacrifice that might break you at any step along the way.'"

Attracting  talented people is vitally important for the small and mid-sized farm.  Contrary to myth, the farm worker is not "unskilled."  Farm work is mental as well as physical, requiring knowledge of math, biology, physics, chemistry, as well as a huge variety of "hard skills," including operating a large number of machines and tools, observing and evaluating plant and animal health, and learning complex systems of inter-related tasks, each step of which needs both efficiency and attention to detail.  The farm worker is not unskilled, but highly skilled in a wide variety of areas, with critical thinking skills being most important.  All while also doing difficult physical labor in all weather conditions.

At Hole in the Woods Farm, we can't attract and retain the kind of skilled people we need to have on our team and pay only minimum wage: besides being morally wrong, the quality team member we need has many other options, and deserves respect and just compensation.  Certainly, the only people who earn less than minimum wage here are ourselves!  If minimum wage increases to $15/hour, we will need to pay our team considerably more than that, just as we pay considerably more than $7.25/hour now; the required work is difficult and highly skilled.  Will our food system value that skill appropriately, so we can afford to do so?  Will our peer farms follow suit?  Or, will the attempt to ensure everyone has a living wage accelerate the already precipitous decline of the American family farm?  Only the communities that support us can decide.


I have a cookbook problem. Really, my cookbook collection is out of control, especially for someone who creates far more recipes than he follows.  But, among the stacks, there are a handful of what I call "books everyone should own."  These are books that have had a profound impact on the way I cook, the way I read other cookbooks, the way I think about food, and even the way I evaluate a recipe before deciding whether to try cooking it or not (or deciding how not to follow it before trying its ideas the first time.

Shirley O. Corriher's Cookwise is absolutely one of these.  Corriher is a chemist-cum-food scientist, who has consulted and problem-solved for many influential folks in the food industry, from Pilsbury to Julia Child.  She also, along with her husband, opened a boarding school for boys, where she learned to cook under pressure, feeding all 140 of them daily!  She has appeared in 14 episodes of Alton Brown's landmark show, Good Eats, including the Thanksgiving episode "Romancing the Bird," and several episodes involving emulsions and crystallization.  Apparently she's also been featured on the reboot of the show, but, alas, I don't subscribe to pay services, so haven't seen them.

Cookwise is not a typical cookbook.  Or really, even a cook book, per se.  It is a book on food science.  It's subtitle, "The hows and whys of successful cooking," is quite accurate.  Corriher takes many of the key aspects of cooking, and breaks down why they work the way they do.  And she covers many different topics:
  • Bread
  • Pie Crust
  • Cookies
  • Cakes
  • Fried Food
  • Eggs
  • Sauces
  • Fruits and Veggies
  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Seafood
  • Chocolate
  • Sugar
  • Dairy
just as an overview.  Each of those topics have many sub-topics. 

While there are a handful of recipes given, they are really more "formulas" than recipes.  They are exemplars, with descriptions of how they work, and the impact various modifications will have.  I used the section pictured above to create the most commented-on recipe I've published in this newsletter (and the best chocolate chip cookie ever), the Grand Marnier Chocolate Chip Cookies from the December 21, 2020 Weeklyish, which began with the recipe on the back of an off-brand bag of chocolate chips, and now bears only a vague resemblance to its origins.

But some of her recipes are also simply genius in their own, unadulterated right.  The Cheddar-Crusted Chicken Breasts with Grapes and Apples in Grand Marnier Sauce may have been created to demonstrate that adding the fruit just before serving reduces color loss due to dissolving anthocyanins, but it also stands alone as a delicious and impressive dinner fit for a fine restaurant, yet approachable by home cooks.

If I have a criticism of Cookwise, it is that Corriher sometimes obscures her point, and the information you need to devise your own dishes, to cater to the timid home cook.  For example, she will often give ratios of ingredients that need to be maintained in terms of weight.  But then express the ratio in terms of volume in her formulas.  A particularly egregious example is in the section on cakes, where she discusses weight ratios, then spends 1/4 of a page describing converting those weights to volume measurements.  The following entire page is a small-font table of volume/weight equivalents for common cake ingredients, along with such notes as "the only way to be accurate with flour is to weight the flour over and over in the manner that you measure volume and take an average."  You then need to reverse engineer all subsequent cake formulas using that table to get back to weight measures to determine the ratios she used and make adjustments you'd like.  If one has the ability to make several trials measuring and weighing flour, he also has the ability to simply measure his recipes by weight!

This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the book was published in 1997, just as accurate and inexpensive digital scales were first coming to market for home cooks.  I imagine if she had published the book just three to five years later, she would have simply recommended folks purchase a digital scale: it's more accurate, more precise, more repeatable, and results in less dish washing (I recommend the Ozeri Pronto scale: accurate, precise to  1g or .01 oz, easy to clean, and less costly than a decent set of measuring cups.  I have two: one for the kitchen, and one for weighting microgreen seeds.). 

That trivial criticism aside, Cookwise is a landmark book, which brings a scientific understanding of the way food works to the home cook, in an approachable and delicious way.  It is a book everyone should own, especially helpful for those looking to cook improvisationally and/or seasonally and locally.  You will learn how to substitute different ingredients, because they are what you have available, or because you want to get a different result from a recipe.  And, you will learn to recognize editing errors in recipes, when they are just wrong and won't work.  You can then decide to avoid the recipe, or to make an educated guess as to how it should read, without having to make a failed attempt first.  And this knowledge will make cooking more flexible, more fun, and more delicious!


Shirley Corriher's Cookwise Cookies: Crisp, Cakey, and a Compromise

It's been a while since I've posted a dessert recipe, and they always seem to garner the most interest from folks.  So, to illustrate the genius of Cookwise, I'll share her cookie formula, which has four variations: basic, thin, puffed, and in-between.  This is the thin and crispy version, but each variation has the same procedure.  To get the variation, you simply change out the type of flour, the leavening agent, the type(s) of fat, the type(s) of sugar, and the liquid (milk in this version, egg in the others).

Revisiting this section of the book, and this recipe in particular, brought up a technique I had forgotten.  She has you toast and butter the pecans before adding them to the dough.  The use of buttered pecans adds additional crunch, and an additional flavor layer that is genius!  The overall result is a buttery, crispy cooky with crunchy, extra-flavorful buttery pecans.  Really delicious - I'm going to have to revisit other recipes and try this change!.  For the other three versions, you'll need to get the book...

Adapted from Thin Chocolate Chip Cookies in Cookise
Makes about 2 1/2 Dozen

1 C coarsely chopped Pecans
12 Tbsp Butter, room temperature, divided
1 1/2 C All Purpose Flour
3/4 teas Salt
3/4 teas Baking Soda
5/6 C Sugar *
1 teas Molasses *
3 Tbsp Light Corn Syrup
2 Tbsp Whole Milk
1 Tbsp Vanilla Extract
1 C Chocolate Chips

Preheat the oven to 350 F. 

Spread the pecans on a baking sheet, in a single layer.  Roast for 10-12 minutes.  Dump the pecans into a small bowl, and stir in 2 Tbsp butter while the nuts are still hot, until it is completely melted.  Raise the oven temperature to 375 F.

Sift the flour, salt, and baking soda together into a medium bowl.

Using an electric mixer, cream the rest of the butter, sugar, and molasses until it's light and fluffy.  Add the corn syrup, milk, and vanilla, and beat in thoroughly.

With the mixer on low speed, gradually add the dry ingredients, just until thoroughly combined.  You will need to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula a few times.  Add the pecans and chocolate chips, and mix in for just a few seconds.  Finish mixing with a rubber spatula.

Cover baking sheets with parchment paper, then drop dough from a cookie scoop or tablespoon.  These will spread a fair bit, so I'd recommend only 8 cookies per half sheet pan (normal home cookie sheet size) so they don't collide.

Bake for about 12 minutes, until the edges just start to turn brown.  Remove from oven, and let cool on the sheets for about 3 minutes, then remove the cookies to a rack to finish cooling.  Try to resist eating them all in one day.

*NOTE: Corriher calls for 1/2 C sugar and 1/3 C light brown sugar.  I'm basically making that 1/3 C of brown sugar by using granulated sugar and adding molasses, which is what brown sugar actually is.  I don't use enough brown sugar to make it worth keeping on hand.

Order Deadlines

Delivery Option     Deadline
Home delivery | Thursday     Tuesday, 10pm*
Pickup @ Culver Farmers' Market | Saturday     Thursday, 10pm
*Sourdough orders for delivery require an additional 24 hours
Shop Now
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