Susie Middleton is no stranger to fresh ingredients and we are no strangers to Susie, so when we heard that she was coming out with a new book we couldn’t wait to get our hands on a copy.
Fresh from the Farm: A Year of Recipes and Stories chronicles Susie’s adventure on Martha’s Vineyard, leaving her corporate life to start a farm, embracing this next chapter and learning some new life lessons as she sows her own seeds, literally!
The book, broken down by season, delivers simple fresh recipes (125 to be exact!) developed by Susie in her farmhouse kitchen, plus advice for those who might be thinking about starting a small market. It also tells the beautiful story of her time on the farm.
OLDWAYS: Talk to us about how you took the monumental leap from editor to farmer.
SUSIE: I had a dream that I didn’t even realize I had! When I was editor of Fine Cooking magazine, I was so busy, ironically, that I didn’t even have time to get to a farmers’ market. I knew I was somehow disconnected from the source of my food, but I had no idea how important growing things was to my own well-being. That revealed itself to me gently in my new life.
First, I took a sabbatical of a few winter months up here on Martha’s Vineyard and began work on my first cookbook (Fast, Fresh & Green). I fell in love with the beauty of the Island and the people—especially the people I met who were part of a new movement to support local agriculture—and decided to stay. My first summer, I had a little tiny vegetable garden that my landlords planted just for me. I also joined the local CSA. Since I was developing vegetable recipes for the new book, it was like vegetable nirvana! But I found I really enjoyed being outside, digging in the dirt, and harvesting those lovely, fresh jewels.
So the next summer, I rented a plot at a bigger community garden, grew more vegetables, and even sold a few. I had met a handsome carpenter (who is now my partner) and he wanted to grow vegetables, too. So when a miraculous opportunity came up for us to rent a little old farmhouse with just a bit of land, we took it. That was four years ago, and the little farmette is now a real farm (Green Island Farm), with 500 laying hens, an adorable farm stand, a hoop house, and lots of vegetables. Along the way I wrote a second cookbook (The Fresh & Green Table) and now a third!
So while it was a monumental leap (I certainly live a much simpler, more rustic, lower-budget life than I used to!), it happened in slow-motion as the purpose of my new life was revealed to me. Now I am a farmer, a cook, and a writer, and I couldn’t feel more lucky and fulfilled.
OLDWAYS: What was the most rewarding part of combining your longtime love of cooking with your newfound passion for gardening and tending to a farm?
SUSIE: I’ve always found vegetables seductive—they are so beautiful and incredibly versatile in the kitchen that they keep my creative mind jumping. To be able to grow them now—and to experiment with all different kinds of varieties from Fairy Tale Eggplants to Ruby Streaks Mustard to Red Kuri Squash—is such a thrill. And it broadens my ability to help demystify vegetables for folks. In my books and my recipes, I try to showcase easy techniques and accessible flavor pairings to make vegetable dishes possible for everyday cooking. And now that I have an even bigger range of veggies to work with, I can get into really specific details. I think I am very lucky, as a farmer, to have the cooking background I do.
OLDWAYS: In your book you talk about things in life coming when you least expect them to come. What are your top 10 pantry staples you always keep on hand to prepare for the unexpected?
SUSIE: I love to answer this question, and in fact, I often haul along my little repertoire of pantry staples when I go to book signing events. I think if you master a few basic techniques—and keep a few key ingredients in your pantry—you can make delicious dishes with whatever you bring home from the farmers’ market, the farm stand, the grocery or your own garden.
Here’s what to keep around:
Aromatic veggies: garlic, ginger, shallots, onions, scallions. I always build a base layer of flavor by sautéing or softening one of these first for a quick side dish.
Bright acids—vinegars, hot sauces, tomato juice, even wine. A splash picks up all the flavors in a dish.
Lemons, limes, and other citrus—both juice and zest. Again, these acids highlight and brighten any dish.
Parmigiano Regianno cheese; a little bit of the real deal, with its nutty, salty, undertones, adds that “umami” flavor to a dish.
Fresh herbs. If you can grow some, by all means do. Hardy thyme, rosemary, and sage are easy to keep going in a perennial bed, and tender basil, parsley, cilantro, and mint thrive in the summer months. Often people feel frustrated by buying more than they need at the grocery, so to prevent waste, wrap fresh herbs in damp paper towels or dishtowels and put them in a zip-top bag. They will keep much longer this way.
Extra-virgin olive oil and unsalted butter
Kosher salt and a fresh pepper grinder
Nuts (toast for more flavor) and dried fruit (to add to green salads, grain salads, and more)
Basic Asian condiments like soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, and chili-garlic paste
“Umami” condiments like capers, olive, sundried tomatoes and anchovies.
OLDWAYS: What was the most important lesson you learned after a year (and maybe a little more) on the farm?
SUSIE: Well, I learned (pretty quickly) to understand that things die—some of those cute baby chicks don’t make it, the pigs are only here for six months, a nasty round of cabbage worms can (and will) wipe out a whole crop of kale. You have to prepare for loss on a farm.
But I also learned that the good stuff far outweighs the bad.
There is nothing better than pulling your jeans on one cool June morning, trotting outside into the blur of sun-burning-off-fog daylight, grabbing your scissors to harvest the arugula, still dewy, and getting tangled up in a web of emerald pea vines flecked with tiny white blossoms transforming into the sweetest peas you will ever pop into your mouth. Every single day the garden is new and different and beautiful. The animals surprise you. The people who come to your farm to buy your food amaze you with their gratitude. Those fresh eggs really do taste better than anything you could imagine. This is as good as it gets, I say.
OLDWAYS: You tell us that October is your favorite month. Speaking of favorites, we’d like to share a recipe from the book with our readers. Which one would you point us to that’s also one of your favorites?
SUSIE: I love to elevate humble vegetables into something special, so from the Indian Summer section of Fresh From the Farm, I’d offer up this lovely recipe for Roasted Beet Jewels with Cranberries, Pecans & Balsamic Butter. (And yes, October is the best—quiet and peaceful and warm and still abundant with life.)
Roasted Beet “Jewels” with Cranberries, Toasted Pecans & Balsamic Butter
This easy and delicious side dish is a great way to introduce people to roasted beets—or beets in general. You’ll love it, too, because the small-diced beets cook in only 25 minutes—no boiling or long, slow roasting here. This is also the kind of dish that’s as nice in winter as it is in summer. If you can find golden beets, use a mix of colors here. Or you can also substitute carrots for half of the beets.
Recipe copyright Susie Middleton, 2014, from Fresh From the Farm: A Year of Recipes and Stories (The Taunton Press)
1 1/2 pounds beets (preferably half red and half golden), topped and tailed but not peeled
Extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 tablespoon seedless red raspberry jam
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces and chilled
1/4 cup very finely chopped dried cranberries
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup chopped toasted pecans
small fresh parsley or mint leaves for garnish (optional)
Heat the oven to 450°F. Cover two heavy-duty sheet pans with parchment paper. Keeping the red and golden beets separate (if using both colors), cut them into medium-small dice (no more than about 1/2-inch). Put each color in a bowl and toss with 2 teaspoons olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Transfer each bowl of beets to separate sheet pans and spread in one layer. Roast until the veggies are tender and shrunken, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a mixing bowl.
Put the orange juice, raspberry jam, and balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir or whisk continuously until the jam is completely melted and the sauce is slightly more viscous (it may be steaming but it should not boil), about two to four minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and immediately add the cold butter. Swirl the pan until the butter is melted and the sauce is slightly creamy. Add the cranberries and thyme and stir. Pour and scrape the balsamic butter with the cranberries over the roasted beets and mix and toss gently. Add most of the pecans and stir gently again. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with the remaining nuts and herb leaves (if using).