Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Imaginary Worlds

It's Ogre-tober! Despite being a member of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, my hectic schedule hasn't permitted me to visit their latest exhibition, Imaginary Worlds, until now. Unfortunately, the exhibit ends next week, on October 31, so if you haven't been, you need to go now!

Created by the non-profit group International Mosaiculture of Montreal, this is the first exhibition on this scale ever held in the US!

Comprised of 19 monumental living sculptures tucked throughout the garden, each steel-framed figure filled with thousands of annuals, it is truly a sight to behold. Shaggy Dog's autumn-browned grass coat bears an uncanny resemblance to my first dog, so I have to pick her as my favorite sculpture.

Earth Goddess' over 40,000 plants conceal a metal framework that took workers 3 months to construct, requiring 5 tractor trailer trucks to deliver from Canada to Atlanta, facts I learned from the free cell phone tour offered by the garden.

The revolving fish sculptures at the end of the Great Lawn invite you to sit in the shade, relax and enjoy a beautiful fall day.

All of the gorgeous purple echeveria that form the pattern on the cobra's hoods would have been a perfect choice for Atlanta's usually hot, drought-prone summers, but I bet they struggled to keep them alive through  the record-setting levels of rain we got this year!

I'd never noticed these frog sculptures in the Children's Garden before, but I was enchanted by their happy faces under the waterfall.

Also happening this month, Scarecrows in the Garden is a fun annual event where local businesses, schools, and other groups compete to win the coveted prize. 

I don't know how the judges chose the winners, they were so wildly creative, all of them were winners in my book!

We were fortunate enough to wander into the Edible Garden Outdoor Kitchen just in time for a Garden Chef Demo with Julia LeRoy. Happening on Saturdays and Sunday, from May-October at noon, 1:00PM and 2:00PM, it is worth planning your visit to coincide with one of these. We watched as a garden volunteer showed a young visitor exactly which swiss chard leaves were ready to be picked, then enjoyed seeing Julia turn them into a delicious Swiss Chard and Farro Risotto or Farrotto that we got to taste. I haven't used farro that much, but after learning how easy it is to work with, I can't wait to experiment with it!

I hope you will all make it to Imaginary Worlds before it ends! If you go, be sure and stop back by here to let me know what your favorite sculpture is!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Brasstown Beef's Poorhouse Mountain Picnic

When I first got a message asking if I would like to attend Brasstown Beef's 1st Annual Poorhouse Mountain Picnic Farm Tour and Luncheon, I will admit, I squealed like a fangirl. It seemed almost as if the event had been created with me in mind, so perfectly did it blend all of my interests: responsible agriculture, family farming, the Atlanta and Asheville restaurant scenes. The reality was even better than I could have imagined.

I was fortunate that my friend Kevin Jenkins from Chef and the Fatman had also been invited to attend and he generously let me ride with him, as my car is getting a bit long in the tooth and I am hesitant to take it too far away from my mechanic's shop. When we set off on that dreary, drizzly morning, we debated the sanity of driving to North Carolina, when the weather forecast called for rain, rain and more rain, but we were in agreement that we wanted to support Steve and Whit Whitmire, because we really admire what they are trying to do up at Ridgefield Farms.

The beef at Brasstown Beef are Free Choice fed, meaning that they graze in the rolling green hills, but they also have access to a carefully formulated mixture of silage and corn, which will soon be non-GMO as they have just secured non-GMO seed that they are going to plant if it ever dries out enough to do so, dried distillers grain, probiotics, minerals, cinnamon, kelp and garlic. They are never given antibiotics or hormones.

This really sums up the Whitmire's philosophy, they could have taken the easy way, Steve Whitmire had a successful commercial cattle operation, but in 1998 he chose instead to take the harder path and create an operation he could be proud of. Today their Braunvieh-Angus "BraunAngus" crossbreeding program is consistently producing some of the top beef that you can buy. Not only are they looking to produce the tastiest beef, but they are also looking to produce cows that require less feed per pound, reducing methane emissions, and select for bulls with excellent temperaments, for the safety of everyone on the farm. Their humane treatment of the animals has earned them a "Pasture Centered" Step 4 Rating from Global Animal Partnership. The only thing keeping them from having 5 stars is that they don't have a slaughter house on site, although the facility they use practices only the most humane slaughtering methods as well.

Just one of the extra steps that they take at Brasstown Beef to make sure you get the tastiest beef possible, ultrasounds of every animal. They look at the amount of back fat and marbling, as well as the size of the rib eyes and other cuts to determine if an animal is ready to slaughter.

After the cow gets a quick haircut and squirt of vegetable oil, the ultrasound tech does her job and records the data. One of the attendees asked about the cost and she said it depends, but ultrasound techs can get $14-18 per head, so that is a substantial investment into making sure the beef is consistently excellent, as they may end up needing to be checked several times prior to slaughter.

What you may not know about Brasstown Beef is that they are not just beef, they've also recently started a hog operation as well. You may notice their happy, curly tails, they don't dock them because they don't have to. Unlike most commercial producers whose animals are kept in crowded confinement these beauties are free to run around and wallow in their spacious pasture, so they don't develop destructive behavior, like tail biting.

I took about 15 pictures of the adorable piglets, but I'll limit myself to sharing just these two.

Unless you want to see more, then you can go see my whole set here

After our farm tour, we piled into cattle trailers pulled by tractors and headed up the mountain. We were greeted by folks from the John C. Campbell Folk School, one of the sponsors of the event. I have always wanted to attend the school and spend hours browsing the catalog, drooling over all of the amazing classes, each one sounding better than the last! Their cooking department offered a tasty selection of chutneys and things for us to sample, their blueberry grape relish was fantastic with the blue cheese.

Some of their talented musicians playing bluegrass and other traditional tunes.

The cheerful, checked-cloth covered picnic tables overlooked the gently rolling hills and we were able to watch the cows grazing below as we ate. Obviously we didn't want to upset them, so we pretended it was a vegan feast. 

Chef Craig Richards of Dinner Party Atlanta was given some gorgeous Brasstown pork belly to work with. While family style dining is not so conducive to getting great pictures, I can tell you the final product, with pickled nectarines, smoked eggplant, Thai basil and pine nuts was one of those dishes you just kept picking at even though you were stuffed to the gills, especially those nectarines, pretty sure I ate a pint by myself.

While I hate to play favorites, Chef Adam Hayes, from Red Stag at the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Asheville, made this wood fire roasted beef coulotte that pretty much made my taste buds explode with pleasure.

I admire his dedication to the meat, shortly after we arrived the rains cleared and the sun came out with a vengeance, easily reaching temps in the 90's, plus that fire was hot, but he made sure that every single piece was basted with his delicious balsamic steak sauce and cooked to perfection.

I don't think I'd ever tried coulotte before, but it is a really delicious cut, juicy, flavorful, especially when it comes from quality beef and is cooked by a master. Since I was standing there taking a few pictures, I may have been given a sample or two, strictly for quality control. I'm happy to report that I was able to give it my very highest seal of approval.

Chef William Dissen of The Market Place in Asheville did a pork shoulder with a butter bean and kale ragout, peach-blackberry relish and micro herbs. Fruit is always such a lovely accompaniment to pork.

Matthew Richardson, Chef at Buckhead Beef in Atlanta, did a maple smoked beef short rib over a cloud-like, airy corn pudding (I would love to get that recipe!) with pickled onion and mushroom salad, drizzled with charred scallion white BBQ sauce.

Kevin took advantage of the opportunity to have some of Asheville's most talented chefs on the show and from my side of the table, I thought they all did a great job.

After all of the meat was cleared away, PieLocal and Honeysuckle Gelato, brought out dessert. Luckily, after these past couple of years of BBQ judging, I know how to pace myself and I can handle my meat, so I had plenty of room left to try the caramel-apple and the strawberry-rhubarb pies.

Whit's puppy Pito after a long hard day of escorting us all around the farm and making sure everyone had a wonderful time.

Whit and Steve are hoping to make this an annual event and I can guarantee you, I will be in attendance  if I have the opportunity to do so and I would strongly encourage all of you to do the same, it was a marvelous way to spend an afternoon in the country.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Atlanta Koi Club Pond Tour

At the Southeastern Flower Show this past Spring, one of the gardens that I visited was that of the Atlanta Koi Club, who had a Japanese garden with a koi pond. While chatting with the club member who was volunteering that day, I learned about their biennial koi tour that would be happening this year and resolved to attend. Usually what this means is that I find something that I really want to do, then procrastinate on buying tickets until the event is sold out, or completely forget about it until I see pictures of all of my friends having fun at said event posted on Facebook. However, this time I wised up and put it on my iCalendar as I was standing there and elected to get a notification in time to actually buy a ticket, yay for me!

The cost of the ticket was a great deal, only $25 per car, with a maximum of 4 adults per car, and really you don't want to spend an entire day in the car with much more than 3 other people, anyhow. That included admission to all of the gardens, plus a hot dog lunch and, best of all, a membership to the koi club for the rest of the year. I love being a member of groups! People who are passionate and knowledgeable about anything are my very favorite kind of people.

Did you know that koi adore watermelon? Throw a slice in a pond and watch them hoover off all that fruit in seconds flat. They also go crazy for celery, carrots and just about any other plant, you have to be careful about putting anything into the pond with them like water lilies as they will nibble them into oblivion. Most of the gardens on the tour had separate ponds for their water lilies, some with resident goldfish, as they aren't herbivores.

One of my favorite things about ponds is that they attract dragonflies, one of the few insects that don't creep me out, and I spotted dozens of different kinds on our tour.

The sheer variety of different sizes, shapes and colors was like a living picture, I took dozens of pictures at each pond as I kept choosing a different favorite fish the longer I watched. The pure white one above had these fabulous large round scales down its side creating this white on white texture that was just gorgeous!

Most of the gardens had koi themed or Asian inspired garden decor, this garden also had koi wind chimes and even a fish shaped adirondack chair! To give you an idea of scale, this fountain was nearly as tall as I am, which isn't saying much.

The hardest part about photographing water is the reflections and glare, I would love tips on avoiding this from any photo geniuses who may be reading this post, although I feel like it worked in my favor on the above shot where the koi is swimming through the cloudy sky.

I think I was most impressed by this garden where the homeowner actually digs up all of his banana trees, elephant ears and other tropicals every fall and stores them in a warehouse only to replant them again every spring. I can't even be bothered to pull weeds, so this level of commitment is awe inspiring.

This was one of the smallest ponds on the tour, just down the road from me in Norcross. I appreciated the size, which seemed more manageable to me, and the water clarity, which was like glass. Water clarity can go from clear to cloudy overnight as fish spawn, UV bulbs and filters breakdown, koi people have a lot of challenges.

This was our last stop, where faulty UV bulbs left the pond so murky you couldn't see the koi at all, luckily this dragonfly agreed to be my model by posing obligingly on this statue. I should also mention that all of the club members were so incredibly kind, at this pond the homeowner invited us to come back in a few days after the new bulbs had a chance to do their job and clean the water. I haven't had a chance to go back yet, but plan to do so the next chance I get.

If you would like to see the other 150 or so pictures I took during the tour, I have them in a set here.

Look at that face, they are so friendly and have so much personality!