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In my line of work, people usually assume that I am a better cook than I actually am. But while I might be seriously intimidated by the perfect pie crust, I am also serious about becoming a better cook; trying new things in the kitchen and having some fun while doing so.Since moving here 15 years ago, my single best teacher has been a bag or box of produce fresh from Lowcountry soil.
If you’re like me, there’s often been a time when you spotted something on a market table or in your Community Supported Agriculture share, and thought, “Now what do I make with that?” And in that question lies an invitation to expand your cooking knowledge and your palate.But in that question also lies the key to connecting with our local food culture. It’s a field trip in a foodstuff, and I’m inviting you to come along with me. And whatever your skillset, we’ll have a recipe just for you, whether you’re a novice; a little more adept or feel like you can take on a multicourse tasting menu.For this first installment, I begin where I often do — with restaurant menus. It’s standard to see farm purveyors credited on them, and when it comes to Lowcountry credits, Lowland Farms on Johns Island is a standout.
The small family farm founded in 2011 specializes in heirloom vegetables, flowers and eggs grown using organic methods, and procures seeds almost entirely from heirloom sources. The operation is run by Kenny “Skinny” Melton, and co-owned by his parents, Debbie and Kevin Melton. And chefs clamor for the produce they grow free of synthetic pesticides or fertilizer.“We get bags of pristine, never refrigerated produce that is stored in the soil of Johns Island until the moment you order it,” says Jason Stanhope, executive chef of FIG. “That is magic. When I crunch into their carrots, radishes and beyond, I feel connected to this region and so grateful to live and cook in Charleston.”
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Home cooks can feel that magic, too, through Lowland’s CSA program, and a recent favorite in the shares has been cauliflower. The farm grows several varieties — including Purple, Cheddar, and Snowball — as they mature at varying rates. Cauliflower from transplant usually takes at least 70-80 days (or longer, depending on the weather), so the farmer opts to purchase certified organic plants from Banner Greenhouses in Asheville instead of grow out seed himself.“You have to be patient for it,” Melton says.Lowland grows a row of multiple varieties that runs about 300 feet long. It requires significant human intervention, from covering to hand harvesting.
Depending on the maturity of the flower head, the plants’ leaves can be folded over the crowns to shield them from frost, or if that isn’t feasible, frost blankets can be draped over the plant. When the crowns are ready to harvest, farmhands go through and cut each from its main stem. Unlike broccoli, which will flower again on side shoots, a farmer only gets one chance per plant for a beautiful, mature cauliflower harvest. But that’s simply part of the challenge that has kept Melton on their 14 acres for 13 years.“The fun part of farming is growing different things and seeing what grows best,” he explains.He likes to mix it up each season, growing for variety, learning which conditions each plant favors, and then rotating crop placement to test it all over again to keep the soil healthy.Once the product is out of the ground, he treats it with care, which means not washing the heads before selling, as moisture can remain in crevices and lead to premature spoilage. The payoff is a pristine head of cauliflower in traditional white, bright orange or purple, bringing a little pop of color into the doldrums of a winter kitchen.
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