An agricultural act

figs, ricotta, frisee, basil, and pomegranate dressing

This morning, I snuck out early and went to the Farmer’s Market all alone, leaving the guys at home air-guitaring along with B.B. King  (or Baby King, if you’re Jacob) and Lucille. I love Saturday morning market runs with my family, but there is also something so deeply pleasant about clean morning air and a few minutes of my own company. I always seem to come home a little more awake, a little more relaxed, my bags full of produce and my head full of ideas about what to do with it.

pomegranate dressing

This is the time of year when the Farmer’s Market suddenly explodes – with people, with double-wide tents and stands, with music and flowers and especially, of course, with produce. There are cartons of sweet shelled peas, tomatoes of all shapes and sizes, a rainbow of berries, all manner of stone fruits, and cherries, and corn! We have passed the solstice, and are rushing headlong into summer. I got completely caught up in the madness and made three trips, market-to-car (I was missing my kids and their stroller ;). I arrived home with a ridiculous bounty – especially given that we’ll be getting our CSA box on Wednesday! Nothing to do, then, but get cooking.

frisee and basil

Jess at Sweet Amandine inspired me today to go back and re-read Wendell Berry’s 1989 essay, The Pleasures of Eating. Berry writes:

Eaters … must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.

Preparing meals from our Farmer’s Market bounty is one of the best ways to remind ourselves that we are in fact committing an agricultural act. Shaking soil from basil, slicing into sticky tree-ripe figs, swirling frisée to remove the dirt … with each swoosh of leaves through the cool water we are reminded that our food was grown in the ground.

figs and ricotta and basil

Berry also calls out the ways in which working for our food increases our understanding of it and ultimately our pleasure in it. This work includes farming of course – growing your own food, even herbs on the windowsill, changes the way you feel about what you are eating. But farming is not the only relevant work; “reviving in your own mind and life the arts of the kitchen” can also connect us more deeply with what we are eating.

I spent my afternoon in the kitchen today, listening through open windows as my little guys rode bikes and scooters up and down the driveway and my big guy cheered their feats and refereed their quarrels. There is a fine rhythm to chopping and slicing, rinsing and peeling, and I relaxed completely into it. Convenience in the kitchen has its place; getting dinner on the table easily and quickly and happily is good. But I love those days when I don’t have to think about convenience, when I can slow down and sink in and savor the task at hand. (I imagine some of you might feel the same – are there hours you spend in your kitchen, when you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else?)

There is nearly always some degree of enjoyment in a meal. But when we broaden our role in seeking, in preparing, in working for our food – when we are able to do that, the pleasure of eating is indeed vast.


This little guy was outside the kitchen windows all day today, and seemed very happy not to be working for his vastly pleasurable food :)  We get lots of hummingbirds, but I think this one might start camping out on the feeder.

Figs with Basil, Ricotta, and Pomegranate Vinaigrette
This is adapted from the fig, basil and goat cheese recipe on page 272 of the magnificent cookbook Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi.

Pomegranate molasses is one of my very favorite kitchen staples – I have used it in the past almost exclusively for stews, but I will be making this vinaigrette again soon. Like probably tomorrow. Creamy ricotta and the tangy-sharp dressing are both in perfect contrast with the deeply sweet figs. Frisée offers an undercurrent of slight bitterness that plays really nicely with the richness of the figs and cheese, and sunny basil lightens the mood of the whole thing – the quintessential early summer salad. (Ottolenghi’s version uses young goat cheese and purple basil, and I imagine that it is also pretty perfect). I cut back on the oil in the dressing to play up the tangy zip of the molasses – you can taste and adjust as you see fit.

1 shallot, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses
salt and black pepper, to taste
1 1/2 tablespoons grapeseed oil (original calls for 3 tablespoons good olive oil)

1 1/2 cups frisée leaves
1/2 cup basil leaves (mixed purple and green, or whatever you have – I used just green)
8 ripe figs, at room temperature, quartered (or cut smaller if they are large)
3 ounces of creamy ricotta (homemade if you’d like)

Mix together the shallot, mustard and pomegranate molasses with a whisk. Add salt and pepper. Once those are well blended, slowly add the oil, whisking all the while, to make a “homogenous” dressing.

Gently mix the frisée leaves and basil leaves together, then add most of the dressing to them and toss (reserve some dressing for finishing the salad). Distribute the greens over four plates. Divide the figs among the four piles of greens, then dot each plate with cheese.  Drizzle the remaining dressing over the plates, and season with more salt and pepper if needed.

We served this salad as a modest first course, but secretly I could have eaten an entire recipe of it myself – and then I would have called it dinner.

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16 thoughts on “An agricultural act

  1. Hi, Hannah. Thanks for this thoughtful and beautifully written post this morning. Ah yes, Farmers’ Market madness. I am familiar with the affliction… I haven’t yet tried this recipe from Plenty, but it doesn’t surprise me in the least that it’s a winner. I love pomegranate molasses, too! I’ve been drizzling it over yogurt and toasted quinoa in the mornings. So good.

    • Jess! I feel a little like I imagine my three year old would if Eddie Vedder poked his head through our kitchen window and said “nice jam, man” while Jacob was playing guitar – that is to say, totally shocked and a little star-struck! (Hence the flurry of exclamation points). Sweet Amandine is a thoughtful and beautiful place, and your Wendell Berry musings (and a dash of Joan Didion to boot) were wonderfully inspiring – so. Thanks for making me think. I love when there is’conversation’ in and around these things.

      And – pomegranate molasses for breakfast! Oh my. Tomorrow.

  2. With, I think, a later spring and shorter growing season than you, our farmers market is still a little thin. There’s local beef and eggs, and loads of lettuce and many seedling, though. We stocked up on our favorite sungold tomatoes and basil a couple of weeks ago and they’re all doing well in the raised beds in the back yard. While I grumble about our lack of shade here in what was once a pasture, you really can’t beat the growing conditions, provided I remember to water.

    But while I’m still waiting for the true summer bounty to show up at our farmer’s market, I’m really enjoying one of the stalls that always has lots to offer. There’s a local alpaca farm with yarn and fiber, plus lovely gifts for sale like felted soaps, knitted items and handwoven scarves. Plus they bring two of their sweet animals with them each week. The animals keep my kids entertained while I shop. They are such peaceful, lovely creatures.

    Farmers markets are such a joy, and if I schedule my life right in the summer, I can visit one almost every day of the week without having to drive far at all… Maybe the kids and I will make that our challenge this week.

    I love spending hours in the kitchen, butI’m in a phase of my life where that is much harder to accomplish.These things move in cycles. These days I unwind at the end of the day with some lovely alpaca fiber in my hands since life and the kids keep me so busy during the day. Cooking still happens but it is often quicker and simpler than it used to be. But those days will come again.

    • Tara you are making me want to learn to knit! I rarely get uninterrupted hours in the kitchen these days, but I relish them. As strange as it sounds, I actually even relish my time each evening cleaning the kitchen – just knowing that the guys are down for the night and I can have those moments to myself … woolgathering while I wipe out skillets. Maybe I should try alpaca fiber-gathering instead ;) And yes – in Northern California our ‘spring’ basically arrives in February (I still remember the shock, the years I lived back east, that daffodils did not show up until April – and also the joy of finding crocuses poking through cold mud while back home it was already sort of like early summer ;) )

  3. ah Hannah, Wendell Berry long ago inspired me to shelter myself (and my kids) from too much media, and to attend to the ‘news’ of the earth each day, to become aware that we too are ourselves ‘agricultural acts.’ Here is a part of one his poems that I read when you were small and when both life and death were present in my days, a poem that inspired me to never lose track of the movement of the seasons, including the seasons and earthiness that are our lives:

    from “The Morning’s News”

    The morning’s news drives sleep out of the head
    at night. Uselessness and horror hold the eyes
    open to the dark. Weary, we lie awake
    in the agony of the old giving birth to the new
    without assurance that the new will be better.
    I look at my son, whose eyes are like a young god’s,
    they are so open to the world.
    I look at my sloping fields now turning
    green with the young grass of April. What must I do
    to go free? I think I must put on
    a deathlier knowledge, and prepare to die
    rather than enter into the design of man’s hate.
    I will purge my mind of the airy claims
    of church and state. I will serve the earth
    and not pretend my life could better serve.
    Another morning comes with its strange cure.
    The earth is news. Though the river floods
    and the spring is cold, my heart goes on,
    faithful to a mystery in a cloud,
    and the summer’s garden continues its descent
    through me, toward the ground.

    ~ Wendell Berry ~

    • What a beautiful excerpt, thanks Dad. I love the line “I will serve the earth/and not pretend my life could better serve.” I don’t know when he wrote this, but I love that it seems he has walked it out in his life. I’ve been revisiting some of his writing lately, and it makes me smile to think that I was apparently first exposed to it in the cradle.

  4. I get a bit carried away myself when I get to the farmers market alone, with nobody to keep close and nobody hurrying me alone. I love to admire the bounty, circle the stalls, ask for recipes, think about my cooking week. And when I get home I find it equally meditative to have some time alone in the kitchen–what a treat! I try to be grateful for the food, for the time to prepare it, and for my family to feed it to. I haven’t spent enough time cooking from Plenty yet–I am looking forward to getting to this page.

    • Emmy your name pops up and I start chuckling and thinking “Man Van!” But yes, the Market is a totally different experience when we are on our own. Jacob has a song that he learned somewhere that goes something like “Gratitude, gratitude, grAAAAAAtitude is my AAAAAAAAAtitude!” – for food, time, and family. Can’t wait to see if you post something from Plenty.

  5. Are you loving Plenty? It’s been on my list forever and in the same day you and the blog, The Patterned Plate mentioned how fabulous it is. Guess its time to make the purchase!

    • I *do* love it … It pushes me in new directions and towards new flavors, it is ridiculously healthy, and so far I have not found a dud recipe … that said, my kids seem less enamored of it. Jacob, who loves salad, wouldn’t eat this one. I’ll keep trying it on him though, because I love it ;)

  6. Such a beautiful post! I don’t have a garden to “work” for my food, but whenever I find myself alone in the kitchen preparing ingredients, I can’t help but think about the connection to the growers and the soil. Wendell Berry is always a great reminder to pause and reflect on the true source of our food.

    • Thanks Nicole! Cooking is such a different connection to food than just eating … growing food for yourself probably takes it to another level, but appreciating that someone else grew it for us is sometimes the very best we can do :)

    • Also – just realized that you are EatThisPoem Nicole – how I love your site! The Giving Table is new to me, but also wonderful. Thanks for stopping by :)

  7. Oh figs! Swoon. We don’t get them at our Farmers Markets here (wrong climate), but you are lucky, lucky, lucky.

    I love cooking with pomegranate molasses too. It’s ridiculously easy to make!

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