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Woman quits editing job for life at Vineyard farm

May 11, 2014

HYANNIS, Mass. (AP) — After a lifetime in big city publishing, Fine Cooking editor-in-chief Susie Middleton quit her job and headed to Martha’s Vineyard so she could “hide out for a few months” and contemplate her next move.

“I had a really big job for 11 years,” she says. “But the job was huge and I felt like I was missing out on my connection with food. I don’t think I realized how much I wanted to be gardening.”

Five years later, Middleton found herself still on the island sharing her life with Monument Beach carpenter Roy Riley, a dog named Farmer, a cat named Barney, a tractor they got for free and 500 laying hens. Riley built her a farm stand, supplied first from the market garden they grew together while renting an apartment over an antiques store and later by the farm they somehow found for rent in a prime spot in West Tisbury.

“I’ve had a really miraculous five years by listening to my heart. It really is like a fairy tale and I can’t believe it’s happened to me,” Middleton says, during a break from planting.

Her third book, “Fresh From the Farm: A Year of Recipes and Stories,” (Taunton Press, February 2014, $28, 249 pages) weaves the tale of her city-to-farm journey through 125 recipes, illustrated with gorgeous photos by herself and Alexandra Grablewski.

“I wanted to help people learn to cook with fresh ingredients and learn skills that will make cooking more fun,” Middleton says. “I’m also realistic about what people can get in the grocery store because not everyone has a farm stand they can go to.”

Middleton says she loves setting up the stand Riley built from reclaimed wood (the book details many of the farm’s building projects, right down to diagrams and measurements.)

“I’m very organized and I love to set out the vegetables with all the colors next to each other,” Middleton says.

“Fresh From the Farm” begins in late spring when Green Island Farm made its debut as Middleton fretted over what she describes as the audacity of seeing herself as a farmer:

“Nervous as hell I was, that Memorial Day weekend 2011. I had maybe three bunches of cheery Cherry Belle radishes in a pink Pyrex bowl of ice water, six or eight bags of spring greens — arugula, mustard, and lettuce mix — in a cooler, and four or five pickle jars filled with bunches of herbs up on the shelf. Oh, a quartet of lovely little Tom Thumb Bibb lettuces.”

Although Green Island Farm is doing well, Middleton is abundantly aware of the challenges.

“Animals die and crops die. Pests come along. Or it’s really, really dry. You have to dial in failure. But every time you have a failure, you learn something. It’s very stimulating for us, constantly trying to figure out (how to work) smarter, cheaper, better.”

“Fresh From the Farm” details some of those strategies, such as how the growth of the chicken community was directly linked to Riley’s ability to build coops and how the hoop house he made increased the farm’s yield.

The book’s first recipe, Deviled Eggs with Spinach, Basil & Toasted Pine Nut Pesto, is illustrated with a photo in which the plate of eggs is washed in natural light.

The eggs, of course, are from the chickens which, Middleton says, Riley is kind enough to get up and feed at dawn. Not that she’s far behind him: Delicate lettuce needs to be picked before strong sunlight gets to it.

Early rising and constant physical work are just a few of the changes in Middleton’s life. While she now writes cookbooks and promotes them with travel in the offseason, when spring planting starts she and Riley are pretty much homebodies. Despite her early career in food, they rarely dine out. She sold her city clothes and high heels at the local consignment store.

“I just don’t need things like I used to. We cook our own meals and we go to potlucks. We have pork in the freezer, eggs and greens,” Middleton says. “There are times when 100 percent of the food on the plate is food we have raised, and I never in a million years would have dreamed that.”

Middleton shared these recipes, with her recipe notes and cook’s tips, from “Fresh From the Farm.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m truly biased about this crisp — the flavor rocks!,” is how she introduces this dessert. “Sweet and tangy with a most excellent crunchy topping, it gets a flavor jingle from two secret ingredients — crystallized ginger and a touch of balsamic vinegar. Cook the crisp until the topping is plenty golden (about 45 minutes) — enough time to let the fruit juices reduce and thicken a bit, too. This looks pretty in a 10-inch quiche pan, but any 2-quart baking dish will work. Great warm with vanilla ice cream, this crisp is pretty tasty left over for breakfast, too. I should know.”

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