The Life of the Farmer

When you’re not around on the farm from sunrise to sundown, it can be easy to forget how difficult and physically demanding the farmer’s day-to-day job really is.

Working outside of the home and being involved in several community organizations that require evening meetings, I often arrive home late – usually just about the time Farmer Dan is heading inside. Sure, he may be dirty and sweaty, but he’s a glass-half-full type of farmer, so unless he’s had an unusually bad day, he typically avoids complaining and just gives me the highlights of his day and hops into the shower. At that point, the only reminders of a tough day are his stained jeans and sometimes an empty Bud Light bottle.

But lately, I’ve been able to go beyond riding a few rounds in the buddy seat of the tractor, and be a bit more useful when he’s short on help. It’s then that I truly appreciate how challenging (and often unacknowledged) the work of a farmer can be.

Take a couple of weeks ago, for example. Each year, in early summer, Dan hauls his cow/calf pairs to our pasture three miles north of the farm, where they happily graze on the lush pasture grass until we take them home again in the fall. As you can guess, rounding up over 100 cow/calf pairs by yourself is no easy task. Since the calves are not yet weaned from their mothers, it’s important to make sure to transport the pairs together to make for a smooth transition to pasture. While most cows and their calves share the same ear tag number, allowing us to easily keep them together, some calves don’t get tagged immediately once they are born if they have a particularly protective mama, and that can make sorting all the more difficult.

But farmers are born of tough stock, and I barely heard a word as he went about completing the job.

As a newbie who’s just starting to feel comfortable around large numbers of cattle, I was having the time of my life trying to match the mamas with their calves (it’s sort of like a life-size game of Memory, only a lot louder and a bit smellier). Dan willingly guided me through the process, issuing instructions (“Block there! Let that cow through! Don’t let that cow through! Move to the left- no, the other left!”) and for the most part, I was getting the hang of it and actually felt like a helpful part of the team. I happily shouted out corresponding ear tags and dodged cow pies, all the while thinking, “How lucky am I that I get to help with this and raise my kids around this?”

But it soon became clear to me that as helpful as I may have been as a blocker and spotter, Dan was clearly taking the brunt of the job. As he walked the pairs to the trailer, I watched as cows and calves alike kicked his thighs, his sides, his arms- sometimes twice in the same spot. But farmers are born of tough stock, and I barely heard a word as he went about completing the job.

Later that next evening, I examined his arms and found no less than a dozen bruises trailing up his arm. I was dismayed, yes, but also felt an immense sense of pride for the work that goes into sustaining the family farm each and every day. It can be grueling, often thankless work, but it’s what enables farmers to feed people all over the world every day and keep this rich tradition, this way of life, alive. And for that, I am truly thankful.

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Asparagus-and-Lemon Risotto

Confession time: I’m a bit of a tornado in the kitchen.

Join me on an average night at dinnertime, and you’ll find me pulling out cartons of chicken broth, rummaging through spices on the counter, hastily chopping up an onion and digging for the milk in the back of the fridge, all while trying to stir, flip and taste whatever’s in the pan in front of me. It’s not a pretty sight.

I’m fully aware of the importance of mise en place– a French culinary term meaning everything is “set in place” before one starts cooking. That means ingredients prepped and measured and utensils at the ready, before throwing a single thing in a pot or pan. It’s a lesson I hastily skipped over in the early days of learning to cook, because that kind of neurotic organization drives me a little crazy. Who has time to think everything through before you start? Sadly, I tend to be the cook who gets halfway through a recipe and realizes the meat needs to marinate overnight before cooking. Whoops.

As it turns out, adopting this principle actually saves quite a bit of time and mess – not to mention your sanity. Take the other night, when my parents came over for dinner. Now, my dad and I have an understanding that if he comes over and helps me with the outdoor chores I hate the most – most recently, it was prepping and planting the garden – then I will spend my time preparing a delicious meal that I know he will love. Plants are his therapy and cooking is mine, so it makes for a mutually-beneficial trade. In honor of the asparagus he planted for us, I chose to make him asparagus-and-lemon risotto with pan-fried scallops.

If you’ve made risotto- a creamy dish primarily made of Arborio rice and broth and often flavored with wine, vegetables, seasonings, herbs and cheese – you know that it takes quite a bit of attention. While it’s not difficult, you have to be prepared to sit over a stove for at least twenty minutes and stir until all of the liquid has been absorbed by the rice and it is creamy perfection. This is the kind of recipe where mise en place truly shines – there’s no time to be chopping onions or parsley or zesting a lemon when your hands are needed for diligent stirring.

In my effort to become a bit more zen-like in the kitchen, particularly when company is present, I dutifully portioned my ingredients, chopped my vegetables and herbs and had everything prepared prior to my parents’ arrival. It was only then – 10 minutes before they arrived – that I realized the last of our broth was gone and a trip to the store was needed. Thanks to mise en place (and Yankton’s lack of traffic), I was able to scurry to the store and be back before their arrival.­

If you’ve already got an asparagus patch growing, I urge you to try this asparagus-and-lemon risotto this summer. If you love lemon, feel free to double the zest and juice that goes into the recipe. As written, it features just a hint of lemon flavor – just enough to brighten the dish but not enough to produce an overly-lemony flavor. We love to serve risotto with pan-seared scallops, which are incredibly easy to make if you can just resist flipping them for a couple of minutes while the heat creates that gorgeous caramelized crust. Be sure to rinse the scallops well and dry thoroughly before serving or you might find gritty sand in your mouth- an unpleasant discovery, to be sure.

It’s amazing how much more fun it is to cook for others when your kitchen is tidy and orderly during the cooking process. Thanks to mise en place, I’m fairly confident I can bring my dad back next month for dinner – and to weed the garden, of course.

Asparagus-and-Lemon Risotto

Ingredients
6 cups vegetable or chicken broth, preferably homemade
¼ cup olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 cup Arborio or Carnaroli rice
½ cup dry white wine
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed, stalks cut into 2-inch lengths
1 cup thawed frozen peas
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest, plus more for garnish
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, plus more for garnish
½ cup finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

Directions
Bring stock to a simmer in a medium saucepan.

Heat two tablespoons oil over medium heat in another saucepan. Cook onion, stirring frequently, until soft, 6-7 minutes. Add rice and stir until edges are translucent, 2-3 minutes. Add wine, stirring, just until evaporated.

Add ½ cup hot stock; cook, stirring, until almost absorbed. Continue adding ½ cup stock in this manner until liquid is creamy and rice is al dente, about 20 minutes total (you may not need to add all of the stock). Add asparagus with the last addition of stock, and the peas about 1 minute before the risotto is done.

Remove from heat; stir in lemon zest and juice, parsley, cheese and remaining 2 Tablespoons oil. Season well with salt and pepper. Serve immediately with additional cheese, lemon zest and parlsey, if desired.

Serves 4.

Source: Modified slightly from http://www.marthastewart.com/953796/asparagus-and-lemon-risotto

 Pan-Seared Scallops

Ingredients
Pat of butter
Olive oil
Kosher salt and white pepper
Scallops (about 4 per person)

Directions
Drizzle olive oil in pan with butter and heat over medium-high heat. Rinse scallops and pat dry. Season scallops all over with salt. Making sure pan is very hot, place scallops flat-side down in pan (don’t overcrowd). Do NOT touch scallops once you’ve placed them in the pan or you will not get a nice brown crust.

Flip scallops after about two minutes. Scallops should have a caramel-colored crust. Cook for one minute more, removing scallops from pan when centers are still slightly translucent (they’ll continue to cook after you take them off the heat). Scallops should be springy when pressed with thumb; if they are firm or stiff, they are overcooked.

Serve immediately with caramel-colored crust face-side-up.