Sunday, September 30, 2007

Crafty Bastards

We spent part of the afternoon today at a crafts fair sponsored by the local City Paper and dubbed "Crafty Bastards." There were more than 100 booths packed into an area outside the Marie-Reed recreation center in Adams-Morgan and the place was jammed. Lots of handmade stuff--several different vendors of fancifull stuffed monsters made from cotton and/or recycled cloth. Near the Italian ice stand was this New Orleans jazz band playing up a storm.

Audience participation was encouraged. If you look closely, you can see a certain farmer guy in his straw hat and New Orleans Jazz Fest shirt workin' the washboard.

There was a beat you could dance to....

And the trombonist was some kind of cool.

Weekend Update

Children were in the news this week. George Bush, while draining the treasury to fund his ghastly war-without-end, announced he would refuse to expand health insurance for the nation's kids.

Atta boy, George. Show 'em you know how to save where it counts.

Meanwhile, a new study published recently in the British medical journal The Lancet, and described in some depth by The New York Times, finds that food additives do in fact cause hyperactivity in children. Seems to me I had cousins 40 years ago who had to restrict their intake of Red Dye No. 2 and other additives for the very same reason. Plus ca change....

The study followed three sets of children--aged 3, 8 and 9--for six weeks, giving them drinks with artificial colors and food additives such as sodium benzoate. A control group was given drinks that looked the same but did not contain the additives.

The children who consumed the additives were then evaluated by parents, teachers and computer tests. The results? The kids who ate the nasty stuff showed signs of hyperactivity within a half-hour of consumption.

Researchers say some children are more sensitive than others, and there are undoubtedly other factors at work in children who are hyperactive. But food additives are one thing parents concerned about hyperactivity can control by eliminating them from the diet.

Fresh fruits and vegetables, anyone?


And just when you thought your kid was safe from those horrible soft drinks in the school vending machine, Coke, Pepsi and the other big bottlers are fighting to keep sports drinks such as Gatorade out of proposed new federal legislation aimed at setting nutritional standards for schools.

Legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate would establish standards for foods sold outside school cafeterias. In the past, that would have meant all those soft drinks made primarily from high fructose corn syrup sold in vending machines. Having pledged to phase out full-calorie drinks from schools by 2009, the big bottlers have switched gears and are now heavily promoting their sports drinks, which are lighter on the corn syrup but high on the sodium.

Gatorade Rain, for instance, although it has only half the calories of Coke, contains twice as much sodium. A 20-ounce bottle contains fully 12 percent of the recommended daily amount for a child aged 14-18.

The Institute of Medicine in April released a report urging that sports drinks be made available in schools only to student-athletes participating in more than one hour of vigorous activity. And a report from the University of California at Berkeley's Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Center for Weight and Health warned that students who drink one 20-ounce sports drink every day for a year are liable to gain about 13 pounds.

Some health experts believe sodium may be the deadliest ingredient of all in the U.S. food supply.


Junk food by any other name?

Some jurisdictions have mandated healthier foods in their schools. But an in-depth look by the San Francisco Chronicle finds that schools in California do not adhere equally to the law's mandates, and that often what the kids are getting is just reformulated junk food.

One school kiosk is selling potato chips, another Cheetos, another chocolate chip cookies. Some schools are ignoring the new law altogether, while others allow kids to make a meal of revamped snacks.

According to the Chronicle, in the last year more than 10,000 products have been either introduced or reformulated to contain less fat and sugar. Now, snacks such as Nutter Butters, Rice Krispies Treats, nacho-flavored Baked Doritos and barbecue Corn Nuts comply with the school nutrition standards. They may comply with the letter of the law, but the Chronicle asks, do they comply with the spirit in which the law was passed?

Meanwhile, essayist Tom Philpott describes the disaster that school lunches have become in most U.S. localities. Some school districts are squeezing the lunch hour, forcing kids to finish their meals 20 minutes. Others have stopped making food from scratch and instead have food trucked in and reheated, so that lunch means pealing plastic seals off plastic dinnerware, as well as from plastic eating utensils and plastic condiments. Elsewhere, schools are enacting "user fees," forcing kids and their parents to pay for meals.

"The de facto privatization of school lunches amounts to a society-wide divestment in children’s health," Philpott writes. "At this point, the statistics hardly need repeating: Nearly one in six children and teens are overweight, and diet-related (Type II) diabetes — until recently rare in children — is reaching epidemic levels.

"The money we’re saving by slashing school-lunch budgets will eventually be paid to the health-care industry, with interest."


Are children who eat organic cereal for breakfast missing out on their vitamins? A recent piece in the New York Times would have us believe so.

Parents choose organic cereals precisely because they are free of food colorings and other additives. But according to the Times, those healthy cereals are missing the vitamins that conventional cereal makers add to their products.

Critics contend that the Times coverage completely missed the debate over whether those artificially-added vitamins are processed by the body in the same way as naturally occurring vitamins, or whether children shouldn't be getting their vitamins from fresh fruits and whole milk.

But here's another question: Do you really buy your kids cereal for the vitamins?


Food dyes and other additives represent just the tip of the ice berg when it comes to dubious ingredients in processed foods. But how do we teach children to recognize the bad things in commercial products and perhaps steer them toward healthier foods in the process?

A few programs popping up around the country are teaching children to read and comprehend food nutrition labels. A program in Seattle, for instance, the Pure Food Kids Workshop, takes kids through a 2 1/2-hour seminar showing them how they are marketed to by the big food conglomerates, the difference between whole and processed foods, the possible ill effects of food additives and how to recognize ingredients by reading nutrition labels.

In Vermont, a program called Reinventing the Meal encourages children to be more curious about what's in their food, where it comes from and how many miles it travels before it arrives on their dinner plate. And Harvard University sponsors Planet Health, which incorporates exercise and diet choices to develop healthier lifestyles.


Kids love to make microwave popcorn. And their parents love it too, its so convenient. So it came as quite a shock to learn that the chemical ingredient used to impart that buttery flavor in microwave popcorn can cause a deadly lung disease.

Some manufacturers have recently agreed to remove the chemical. Legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives would order the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to limit exposure to the chemical diacetyl, which has been linked to the so-called "popcorn lung" disease in popcorn plant workers.

Or, how about just making popcorn the old fashioned way--on the stove...

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Saturday Food Film Fest

Make yourself a bowl of popcorn. Put your feet up and relax. No heavy lifting in the kitchen today. We're just going to sit back and take in a few flics.

Amazing, the stuff that's making the rounds on video these days, no? Take, for instance, this surreal orchestra from Austria, a symphony of vegetables, really. A trip to the local produce market, some quick work with an electrical drill, a saw, and--voila!--carrots, peppers, eggplants, all making music together.

Not merely entertaining, but completely mesmerizing. And wait! There's more. There's actually a vegetable orchestra Take 2. Be sure not to miss it. And thanks to Rob for tipping us off...


On a more sober note, John Bowe has written an eye-opener of a book--Nobodies--on the existence of a kind of slave labor in U.S. fruit and vegetable production. Workers who speak no English and are fearful of rocking the boat often live at the complete mercy of agricultural bosses and overlords. They languish in squalid camps with nowhere else to go. And Bowe shows just how critical they are to the food chain that includes Tropicana, Minute Maid, McDonald's and Taco Bell.

Can this really be happening here? Now? Should consumers feel the least bit concerned?

Bowe appeared recently on Comedy Central for an interview with John Stewart, and you can watch it all here at the Eating Liberally blog, where you can also read an excellent review of the book...


Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. In making the documentary King Corn, two guys set out to see where all that corn goes. Turns out, corn is in just about everything we eat. It's helping to make Americans fatter and fatter, and we subsidize the entire business with our tax dollars, helping to make bad food really affordable. But now we're turning it into fuel for automobiles, ratcheting up the price of everyone's grocery bill.

"We're not growing quality," grouses one corn farmer. "We're growing crap!" Like most farmers, he doesn't even eat his own crops.

You can watch the trailer, as well as five short but amusing clips from the film...


If you like watching things blow up, you'll love these films of Portland Gas & Electric actually dynamiting Marmot Dam on Oregon's Sandy River in order to make life livable for the local salmon. You'll see a power company executive actually push the plunger that ignites the explosion. The only thing missing is some reaction from the salmon...

Speaking of salmon, don't miss this funky aquarium scene where the fish are groovin' on hip-hop and flying to the moon...


Finally, someone had the genius idea to put a camera in the hands of actual school children and let them explain why we need to get junk food out of our schools. And just where did these kids get their film-making chops? Their stuff is most excellent.

They're joined by comedian Chevy Chase and Jared the "Subway guy" urging Congress to do something to improve school nutrition...

Friday, September 28, 2007

Alien Tomato

Ah, nature...

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Kids Make Bread Crumb Pesto

Kids love to work with kitchen gadgets. They will fight for a turn on the salad spinner. They can hardly wait to get their hands on a vegetable peeler. Teaching my "food appreciation" classes at a private elementary school here in the District of Columbia, I've found that if you can put even the simplest kitchen tool in a child's hands, you have her complete attention.

There were even "ooohs" and "ahhhs" when I pulled out my mortar and pestle yesterday. "I remember when we used that last year!" Well, I guess we did use the mortar and pestle last year.

In my second lesson on seasonal fruits and vegetables, I wanted the kids to sample some extremely fresh, ripe heirloom tomatoes from the farmers market. And what better way to enjoy them than with some fresh mozzarella cheese and a pesto sauce made with basil picked from the garden (my garden, that is).

First, a matter of etymology. Anyone know where the word "pesto" comes from? In Italian, the verb pestare means "to crush" or "to step on." Hence the root of the word pestle, as in mortar and pestle. (This is how I work language into my cooking lessons. There are also plenty of opportunities for math, chemistry, biology...)

The classic pesto recipe calls for the inclusion of some kind of nut, such as pine nuts or walnuts. But there are such issues with nut allergies in a school setting that I've eliminated nuts of any kind from our lessons. I could not imagine what we might use as a substitute. Then it occurred to me that bread crumbs might approximate the crushed pine nuts. So I brought along a bag of fresh bread crumbs that I made ahead from a rustic loaf.

Before we begin the lesson, we usually sit in a circle in the multi-purpose room and chat. Cook anything good lately? I might ask. There was quite a lot to discuss about tomatoes, it turns out. Anyone care to guess where tomatoes come from? Most of the students guessed Italy or somewhere in Europe. In fact, not a single one had a clue that tomatoes have made a big round trip in our culinary tradition, originating in Central America and Mexico, traveling to Europe with the Spanish explorers and languishing for the longest time because people assumed they were poisonous, since tomatoes are a member of the deadly nightshade family.

Can you imagine spaghetti without tomato sauce?

Well, in fact, these kids can. They love pasta with cheese.

How about pizza without tomatoes?

Once again, they voted for pizza with cheese only, or "white" pizza.

How about gazpacho without tomatoes?

I think I had them there. Before tomatoes, gazpacho was about stale bread--the soup was made with bread and vinegar. Now people can hardly imagine it without tomatoes and tons of other vegetables.

Finally it's lesson time. After a good hand-washing, we meet at the demonstration table where I crack open a clove of garlic, smashing it on a cutting board with the palm of my hand. That always gets the kids' attention. We place the clove in the mortar with a big pinch of kosher salt to draw the juices out. Then everyone gets to come around the table and take a turn smashing the garlic with the pestle until what he have is a garlic paste.

Next I give each of the kids a stem off a basil plant so they can remove the leaves. We start adding leaves to the mortar, now with a dribble of extra-virgin olive oil. Again the kids take turns smashing and grinding. We add more leaves and continue working with the pestle.

At this point, my assistant, T., takes a chunk of Parmesan cheese and a grater to one end of the table and the kids take turns grating cheese. By they time they're finished with that, we've worked all of the basil leaves into our mix as well as a handful of bread crumbs. Toss in some cheese, some more olive oil. Soon we have a delicious looking pesto. The kids are anxious to try it.

They are a bit nonplussed by my selection of tomatoes. They don't know quite what to make of orange tomatoes, green striped tomatoes, tomatoes that are purple and almost black.

"Don't worry," I tell them. "They all taste like tomatoes. They're just different colors. Aren't they cool looking?"

"I don't think I want to eat the tomatoes. Can I go to the playground now?"

Nobody goes to the playground just yet. First we slice the tomatoes into wedges. They are extremely ripe and juicy. The aroma permeates the room. Then, while T. plates the tomatoes with the mozzarella cheese and the pesto, we retire to our spot in the multi-purpose room for a story.

I try to incorporated a picture-book story into all my cooking lessons. If I'm lucky at the library, the story links to the theme of whatever we are cooking. It's not always easy. Today I have a book called The Talking Vegetables, an African tale about a spider who's too lazy to help plant the village garden, but later wants to eat all the fresh vegetables. The vegetables chase the spider out of the garden and he has to settle for a dinner of plain rice.

By now, T. has assembled some gorgeous plates. There's plenty of observing and critiquing from the kids. Some pick up their plates for a closer inspection. They just pick at the tomatoes, or eat only the cheese, pushing the tomatoes and pesto off to the side. But most of the kids dig right in.

"It's spicy!" but in a good way, they say. A few ask for seconds. No, they beg for seconds. One little girl actually licks her plate clean.

Overall, I think tomatoes and pesto was a hit.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Beet, Red Onion & Tomato Salad

This is one of our favorite summer salads, all the better with beets and tomatoes freshly harvested from the garden.

The beets are the Chiogga variety, noteworthy for their concentric circles of red and gold when sliced open. We cook the beets in boiling water until just done, then move them to a cold water bath to arrest the cooking process. The tops and tails and the skin are all easily removed at that point. You can slice the beets into wedges, or very casually, however you prefer.

To make a dinner salad for two persons, slice 1/4 red onion very thinly and cut a ripe tomato into wedges. Add the beets and toss everything with extra-virgin olive oil and a splash of red wine vinegar. Season with course salt and pepper.

For a change, we added an herb, in this case several leaves of anise hyssop, chopped fine, plus some buds from the lavender-colored flowers that are now in bloom. You almost have to grow anise hyssop yourself--I've never seen it in the grocery--but it is a wonderful herb to have on hand, with its bright, almost sweet flavor of--as the name implies--anise.

You could also make this salad with a fine mustard vinaigrette. The vinaigrette would do well to bind all the flavors together and make an elegant presentation. Shallot could also substitute for the red onion and make for a more subtle flavoring. But for an easy everyday salad, we are happy with this very simple preparation, especially when the tomatoes are at their peak.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Yesterday's Breakfast

Sliced Brandywine tomatoes from the garden with pesto sauce and fresh mozzarella cheese.

Preparation time: About three minutes.

Shopping: none

Tomato production in the garden is in full force. What happens to all the tomatoes? Mostly, we just eat them. Fresh. Any way we can. It's almost an axiom of seasonal foods that when the food is in season, you just keep eating it until the season is over. I never get tired of juicy, ripe tomatoes. I can't imagine getting tired of tomatoes. And I don't cook with these tomatoes. They are too good. Any way sliced, sauced, seasoned with a little salt, a little extra-virgin olive oil, maybe a cheese of some kind and some basil leaf and you have a meal.

The pesto and the mozzarella cheese were already in the fridge, just waiting for some tomatoes to come along.

Tomatoes make a great sandwich, breakfast, lunch or dinner. And they are extremely good for you. Tomatoes are full of lycopenes, the agent that makes them red. Studies have shown that tomatoes, and the lycopenes they contain, help ward off a variety of cancers, especially lung and prostate cancer.

are best absorbed with a little fat, so don't be shy with the olive oil.

Above all, eat more tomatoes.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Seasonal Vegetable Soup

People automatically think of soup as cold weather food, but this may be the best time of all for making a vegetable soup. The flavors of freshly harvested vegetables are brilliant and there are so many to choose from. Use the ones you have grown yourself, or check the awesome displays at the local farmers market.

I prefer to use chicken stock with my soups rather than plain water. There's so much more flavor in a good stock and I was so pleased with the way the stock I made a few days ago turned out. It was like Jello, and that is always a sign that you've incorporated plenty of flavorful collagen into the stock.

To get at the collagen in the chicken, I first divide a whole, free-range bird into pieces, then use a cleaver to cut those pieces even smaller through the bone, or at least give all the bones a good whack to crack them open. This exposes the interior of the bones where the collagen resides. The collagen oozes flavor and gives the stock a rich, unctuous feel in the mouth. Simply procede to make the stock as you usually would, including aromatic vegetables, thyme, parsley, bay leaf and a few peppercorns.

For the vegetables in our soup, I used several small- to medium-sized carrots from the garden, both yellow and orange carrots. I have quite a variety growing, so it was just a matter of cleaning and peeling whatever came out of the ground. They were incredibly fresh tasting. I also used two medium leeks, cleaned and thinly sliced, three stalks of celery sliced thin and a couple of cloves of garlic, smash and then chopped.

My favorite way to clean a leek is to first trim the dark green part, whittling it away as if I were carving a spear point until I start to see white. Then I slice the leek lengthwise all the way through, leaving some of the root end intact to hold the two long pieces together. Then wash the leek under cold running water, separating some of the layers to remove any sand or grit.

Cook the vegetables gently in a heavy pot with a couple tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. Season the vegetables generously with coarse salt (a teaspoon or a little more) to draw out their liquids. Cover the pot and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the leeks are soft. Now add 8 cups of stock and 1 1/2 cups chopped tomato, either fresh with the skins and seeds removed, or canned diced tomatoes.

Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce the heat and continue cooking until the vegetables are all cooked through and the flavors have melded. Add a bit more salt to taste if necessary. I did not add any pepper to this soup, preferring it just the way it was with the clean, bright vegetable flavors. You could also add green beans or potatoes. In fact, I had some cauliflower left over in the fridge and added that, broken into small florets.

You could serve this soup with a good rustic bread, sliced thick and toasted or grilled. But we had made a trip to the farmers market to check out the peaches and while we were there saw squash blossoms for sale. We had to have them, so we made squash blossom quesadillas with some fresh mozzarella we had just waiting in the fridge for such an occasion. It reminded us of some of the meals we've had with our friends in Mexico, very simple and casual but extremely satisfying.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Weekend Update

Here's a cute, animated film on factory farming, courtesy of the Sierra Club, to start your Sunday.

And while you're sipping your coffee, consider a recent University of Illinois study of groundwater near pig confinement lots that found transferable genes that confer resistance to antibiotics, specifically tetracycline. Livestock in industrial settings are routinely given antibiotics to ward off the diseases that come with being crammed into close quarters. The result appears to be these Frankengenes that are now loose in the environment.

Just another reason to look for meat that has been raised humanely on pasture.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma's attorney general has filed a lawsuit against the nation's biggest poultry producers over the pollution emanating from chicken confinement lots in that state.


And if that isn't enough to cool your bacon, consider this projection from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that nearly half of all African American and Hispanic children born in this country in the year 2000 will be diabetic at some point in their life. That, of course, seems to be the end game for this factory food system we've established, all subsidized and encouraged by our own gubberment....


A case of going too far, or not far enough? A Chicago-area middle-school teacher who is a practicing vegan was suspended after he threatened to sue the school district over posters mounted in the lunchroom promoting milk.


South Dakota is seeing a banner year for its favorite game bird, the pheasant, but that may be about to change, and not for the better. Pheasants need grasslands and about 18 percent of the land that farmers have been paid to keep fallow is likely to be plowed to produce--you guessed it--corn, because of the demand for our old pal, ethanol.

The irony is, biofuels could be good for pheasants if production were switched away from corn toward a cellulosic fuel made from grasses. Any bets on that happening soon?

This year's corn crop is expected to be the biggest ever--again, largely due to the demand for ethanol. The New York Times weighs in with an editorial noting that ethanol production threatens starvation in developing countries by jacking up the price of food, to go along with the bad weather that seems to be the hand maiden of global warming.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an economic forum of rich nations, has called on the United States and other industrialized nations to eliminate subsidies for the production of ethanol which, the report said, is driving up food costs.

"The economics of corn ethanol have never made much sense," says the Times. "Rather than importing cheap Brazilian ethanol made from sugar cane, the United States slaps a tariff of 54 cents a gallon on ethanol from Brazil. Then the government provides a tax break of 51 cents a gallon to American ethanol producers — on top of the generous subsidies that corn growers already receive under the farm program."

Food & Water Watch has issued a new downloadable report laying out the many reasons why ethanol is not the solution to the country's energy needs.


Among the many ways our government messes with our food, here's one you probably were not expecting: Uncle Sam, by paying coca farmers in South America to plant alternative crops, is helping to put Michigan asparagus farmers out of business. Small asparagus producers in the U.S. heartland just can't compete with the cheap product coming out of countries helped along with subsidies funded by our own tax dollars. There's even a documentary film on the subject.

It's so hard to keep up....


Planning a trip to the farmers market today for some of those wonderful heirloom tomatoes that are now at their peak? Well, consider this piece from the San Francisco Chronicle explaining why so many farmers eventually quit the farmers market scheme.

For many, getting up at the crack of dawn, loading a truck full of produce, setting up the market stand, tending customers for several hours, then breaking everything down again and driving an hour or two back to the farm makes for a long day. For some, it's not even all that profitable. Burnout sets in.

Now there are more and more farmers markets opening, creating just that much more competition between farmers. There's a question how many farmers markets any one area can support. Selling at the farmers market "is by far the hardest way for us to make a dollar," one burnout victim is quoted as saying.

Something to think about while you're filling your grocery bag with juicy peaches, fresh string beans, okra....


Finally, if you're just too lazy to make the trip to the farmers market for fresh eggs, here's a delightful piece on raising chickens in your own back yard. Even city folks are getting in on the act.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Green Tomato Pizza

Last night was pizza night, mainly because we've been collecting fresh mozzarella in the fridge and you don't want that to go bad before you can use it.

For one of the toppings, my wife made a trip to the garden and came back with a big green tomato. It sliced up nicely and made an astounding presentation. It was even better after it had cooked in the oven.

I may have mentioned that my wife makes the world's best pizza crust. It's part whole wheat. She was in a bit of a hurry tonight so she put the dough in the oven to rise. Then she rolls out a pie and cooks it in the oven till it's almost done without any topping. On go the toppings and cheese and back into the oven it goes until the cheese is adequately melted and gooey.

It's a fairly thin crust and that's the way I prefer it. I do not like bready pizza crusts. The green tomato pizza came out of the oven with just a bit of tang. The green tomatoes are surprisingly good, even after just a few minutes baking. We grated lots of Pecorino cheese over the whole thing.

There was a pepperoni pizza as well for my daughter (no green tomatoes for her) and finally a "white" pizza, meaning just the crust and cheese.

I'm looking forward to more green tomato's this fall. I grew so many tomato seedlings and I couldn't bear to throw any away. So I made cages for most of them and planted them all over the garden. The earliest have already got the wilt but are still producing. The youngest tomatoes are just now setting out fruit and the foliage is very robust, with big healthy leaves. I'm thinking we will have pickled green tomatoes and possibly more green tomato chutney this year.

Maybe even another green tomato pizza.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Kids and Peach Cobbler

Ever tried skinning a peach with a plastic knife?

This week I wanted to introduce the kids in my "food appreciation" classes to the idea of seasonality. I couldn't think of a better way than with some delicious peaches. Apparently, the idea of "seasonal" fruits and vegetables is something new to them.

Why, I asked them, do you suppose Whole Foods would sell peaches like this that are so hard and aren't ripe yet?

The young students thought for a moment.

Because they taste better?

Uh, no. Not really.

So you can take them home and they'll get softer?

Well, that may be true. But what if I told you these peaches came all the way from Washington State. That's almost 3,000 miles these peaches had to travel to get to the Whole Foods here in the District of Columbia. Would that explain why the peaches are so hard?

Maybe because they're easier to put in boxes that way?

Yes! Now you're getting somewhere. The farmers pick the peaches when they're still hard, before they're really ripe, because it's much easier to truck them across the country that way. They aren't so easily damaged. But what if you wanted a peach that was already soft and ripe and juicy and ready to eat? What would you do to get one?

Go to the store?

In fact, many of these seven- and eight-year-olds have been to the local pick-your-own orchards, so they know what peach and apple trees are. Some even have fruit growing in their yard. But apparently they have trouble making the distinction between fruit that's been picked ripe and is ready to eat and fruit that's been harvested before its time solely for the convenience of the interstate produce industry.

It took quite a bit of prompting, quite a lot of the Socratic question-and-answer method I use with the kids, to get around to the idea that some fruits and vegetables are grown much closer to home and can be purchased ripe and ready to eat at the local farmers market.

Do you know what a farmers market is?

Isn't that a building where people sell stuff?

Anyway, the kids took turns trying to skin the peaches with the plastic knives from the collection of disposables the school keeps on hand. (I know--too much plastic!) To move the process along, I had already skinned five very large (and not very ripe) peaches from Whole Foods and cut them into thin wedges. We dressed these in a mixing bowl with 1/4 cup sugar, 2 teaspoons corn starch, 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice and a pinch of salt.

I explain how the sugar will draw the juices out of the peaches, how the corn starch will thicken the juices into a kind of sauce when it cooks in the oven. And why would we put salt in a peach dessert? Because salt makes almost everything taste better. We give our cobbler filling a good stir, pour the mix into a ceramic oval (or small casserole) and place it in a 425-degree oven to cook.

While the peaches are baking, we make our crust. This is a shortbread or biscuit dough recipe. The object is to handle it as little as possible to keep it light, not bready, and just scatter the dough in small clumps over the top of the peaches.

Measure 1 3/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour (we use King Arthur) into a mixing bowl. Add 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1 tablespoon sugar and 1 teaspoon salt. Then cut in 5 tablespoons unsalted butter.

I explain the concept of shortening and cutting it into the flour. The kids watch me cut small pieces off a chilled stick of butter. Then they each get a turn working the butter into the flour, squishing the butter and flour together with their finger tips very quickly (you don't want your body heat to melt the butter) until the mix looks more like sand and the flour has taken on some of the yellowish tint of the butter.

We then add 3/4 cup whole milk to the bowl. Always add wet ingredients to dry ingredients, not the other way around. Then with a spatula we mix just enough so that the milk is completely incorporated and the dough just holds together.

I remove the ceramic oval from the oven. The peaches are pretty well cooked through and bubbling. Now the kids can each have a turn picking clumps of sticky dough out of the bowl and dropping it onto the peach filling. Soon the whole top is covered. It goes back into the oven and while the crust bakes to a golden brown--about 20 minutes--we read a couple of chapters from--what else?--James and the Giant Peach.

It's a ghastly tale of a poor boy who's left all alone with his perfectly horrible aunts after his parents on a trip to London are eaten by a rhinoceros escaped from the zoo. Then he accidentally spills a bag of magic crystals, which filter down to the roots of a gnarley old barren peach tree, which then produces a giant man-eating peach. The kids are mesmerized.

But we can't leave without sampling some peach cobbler. It comes out of the oven with the crust lightly browned, rough and pebbley looking. A cobbler should be casual and easy, not fussy, the savory biscuit crust playing with the sweet peaches and sauce.

This one is still too hot to touch, so I've made a second cobbler ahead. The kids each get a generous spoonful. Some decline and run out to the playground. The rest clean their plates.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Schoolyard Greening

Last year after building a big container garden at my daughter's charter school I got involved with a group called D.C. Schoolyard Greening. The organization, composed of several non-profit and government entities, is doing great things to promote gardens in D.C. schools as resources for learning, recreation and nutrition.

This year for the first time, Schoolyard Greening is sponsoring a week-long focus on gardening called School Garden Week. Modeled after a program in California (which gets millions of dollars in funding, by the way) this week of activities encourages teachers, students and parents to get outside and work in the soil. D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty has even issued a proclamation declaring the week of Oct. 15 - 20 as being devoted to school gardens.

The week kicks off Oct. 15 with a wetlands planting and garden tour at La Salle Elementary School. We're hoping the mayor will join several other city officials in attending.

On Oct. 16 there's a panel discussion on how to start and maintain a school garden. Several folks with long experience organizing gardens and community groups in the District of Columbia will be taking part.

On Oct. 18, Casey Trees is holding a "walk among trees" at Murch Elementary Schools. Casey Trees, which has worked with parent volunteers to plant dozens of trees on the Murch campus, is one of the prime movers behind D.C. Schoolyard Greening.

Oct. 19 has been designated "volunteer work day" at D.C. school gardens. We have dozens of volunteers looking for ways they can help with local gardens.

Then on Oct. 20, the fourth-annual bus tour of D.C. school gardens takes off, lunch included.

Also on Oct. 20, for the first time, there will be a "bike hop" of school gardens sponsored by the Women's Garden Cycle Project. I'm especially excited about this event because our garden at the Children's Studio School is one of the stops on the hop, and the women cyclists are just now on the homebound leg of an incredible tour of vegetable gardens and farms all the way to Montreal and back. (You can read about this marathon cycling adventure at their blog.)

Last but certainly not least of the garden week activities is a photo contest for all D.C. school children. Any child of school age, through high school, can enter favorite garden shots (no faces, please) and win a prize for herself and her teacher. I am working on this particular project with my garden partner at Children's Studio School, Elizabeth Wyrsch. So do by all means send us your garden photos. The deadline for entry is Oct. 1. You can go to the Schoolyard Greening website for complete details.

Oh, and we are scouting locations where we can display the winning photos if you have any suggestions.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Trouble with Urban Farming

Ethicurian gives a qualified thumbs-up to New York magazine's recent take on urban farming. I'm sorry to see that my cohorts at the Garden Rant blog are far less generous. In fact, you could call their response downright nasty.

For some reason, the idea of growing food in the city stirs all kinds of emotions and incites sometimes hyperventilated critique.

For the New York piece, entitled "My Empire of Dirt," freelance writer Manny Howard turned his 800-square-foot backyard in Brooklyn into a working farm he hoped would feed him for the month of August. In the process, he discovered his yard was contaminated with lead and trucked in five-and-a-half tons of top soil from Long Island to replace it. The yard didn't drain, so he built an elaborate drainage system, culminating in a five-foot-deep shaft dug by hand through thick clay. He nearly sawed off a finger building rabbit hutches. Then, just when his vegetables were producing a bounty, the whole enterprise was nearly wrecked by a once-in-a-lifetime, inner-city tornado. And for the $11,000 he spent on the project, Howard was barely on speaking terms with his wife when it ended.

First, having been a struggling freelance writer myself at one time, I have a soft spot for Manny Howard and I have to say that if I were to write a magazine article about becoming an urban farmer, his approach is probably the one I would choose. Second, having started an urban farm of my own here in the District of Columbia (we like to call it an "edible landscape") I can attest that what Howard went through is pretty much exactly how these things actually happen.

To hear the folks at Garden Rant tell it, Howard rates hardly better than an interloping heretic who would have done better to keep the whole experience to himself. Furthermore, he wouldn't have had any of these problems if he'd just asked for their advice.

"The basic idea is, we'll try growing our own food as an experiment. We'll spend more money on the garden than any actual backyard farmer would," writes Michele Owens, one of the four co-ranters on this very popular garden site, and one where I have published some of my own stuff. "We'll pretend to have ambitions no real gardener would go near--mostly involving animals, because there is lots of disgusting comedy there. We'll exaggerate every failure, as if our own inexperience and insincerity of purpose has nothing to do with it. And we'll write about it, cheekily deconstructing one of our culture's new touchstones: it is virtuous to eat locally and even more virtuous to grow your own."

I never saw the part where Howard claimed to be a "real gardener." Twice, by way of immunizing himself against all the self-righteous critics out there, he calls his experiment "a stunt." But where is it written that gardeners lose their membership in the club if they try to feed themselves, or try to raise animals for food? On the contrary, there is a virtuous strain of self-reliance running through the gardening tradition, often including small farm animals for protein to go with the potatoes and string beans.

And I did not detect any cheekiness in Howard's writing. He seems dead-on earnest to me. His first-person narrative device is one of self-deprecation, as in I hope you readers out there can find some humor in all this. (Some obviously don't.) The logical endpoint of locavorism, or eating locally, is to grow it in your own back yard. Does this mean you can't be a "real gardener" if you grow your own vegetables or slaughter your own rabbits or smoke your own sausages--all activities I've known ardent "gardeners" to engage in? What I find most surprising is not that Howard's ambitions extended to raising farm animals in his urban back yard, but that the local ordinances in Brooklyn actually allow it. I only wish we could do that here in the District of Columbia. But then my wife and the neighbors definitely would string me up.

(Yes, killing animals is messy, but somebody's got to do it. Just be glad you're at the top of the food chain.)

As far as the folks at Garden Rant are concerned, though, Howard's experiment violated some kind of sacred gardening code. Though shalt not spoil the idea of gardening as an idyllic, sweat-free pastime.

Cross the line and those gardeners can get downright unpleasant. You are liable to get the back of a trowel.

"Plus, anybody who knows anything knows you're an ass," sputters Owens, as if logic alone were not enough to quash the New York writer's bona fides. "Growing food is easy, even in a Brooklyn yard, if you have enough sun and reasonable soil."

Oh really? I guess all those hours I spent breaking sod and digging rocks for my vegetable beds, the hours turning compost, nursing seedlings, getting down on all fours to pull weeds, building trellises, agonizing over powdery mildew and harlequin beetles and squash borers, searching for potatoes that never materialized, watching tomato plants succumb to wilt, trying to decide what to plant and when, pulling more weeds, dealing with the lead in my soil, hauling huge rolls of reinforcing wire from Home Depot to build tomato cages, digging and disposing of more rocks, collecting neighbors' leaves for my compost, rebuilding trellises after they are blown down in a storm, pulling more weeds--I guess all that was wasted effort, because growing food really is so easy.

I would have done better to just pull up a lawn chair and lose myself in Fine Gardening. Silly me.

Besides which, not all urban plots have "reasonable soil." Heavy metals are a real issue, and Manny Howard's is not the first garden I know of where the soil had to be completely replaced.

Maybe this is where "gardeners" and do-it-yourself locavores part company. The fact is, urban agriculture is catching on, whether or not it qualifies as "gardening." There's plenty of it happening in Detroit, Chicago, New York, Oakland. And having just watched a documentary about Cuba turning itself into one great big urban farm to deal with its own local oil and food crash, I am only emboldened to continue my own urban experiment, even if it means I no longer qualify as a "real gardener."

Manny Howard's only real problem may be that he didn't give himself enough time. In another year or two, he could have called himself a real urban farmer.

I wonder if the magazine reimbursed him for that $11,000...

Life Without Oil

Is the world running out of oil?

Everyone knows that oil is a finite resource. But more and more people are embracing the concept of "peak oil," a theory positing that we may have or will soon have reached a point when half of all the planet's supply of oil has been used. That's a startling thought to contemplate, considering it took Planet Earth hundreds of millions of years to create the oil, and it took mankind only 150 years or so to use up half of it.

Even scarier, though, is that the "easy" oil has mostly been used up, never to be replaced. From here on out, extracting fossil fuels will just get harder and harder. Recently a barrel of oil topped $80 for the first time. Author James Kunstler believes we are on the cusp of a "long emergency," when the huge infrastructure and suburban lifestyle we've built around easy oil will begin to crumble.

The implications for food are huge. More oil is spent on food than in any other sector, from the natural gas used to make artificial fertilizers, to the diesel consumed planting and harvesting crops and trucking food to market. The United States in just the last generation has gone from an exporter of oil to the world's biggest importer. We are a nation of oil guzzlers. You might even say that the food on our plate is just fossil fuel transformed into something more edible.

So what would happen if we ran out?

For the answer to that question, you need look no further than the neighbor we most love to hate, Cuba. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1980s, Cuba lost its primary patron and benefactor. Almost overnight, supplies of fuel and food disappeared. Up to that point, Cuba had been even more dependent than the U.S. on artificial fertilizers for its agriculture. What ensued was a time Cubans now refer to euphamistically as "the special period," a time of hunger and privation.

In the ensuing years, the average Cuban lost 20 pounds. Malnutrition swept the country. Without oil, Cubans had to give up their cars and learn to ride bicycles. Getting to and from work often meant waiting hours for rare buses. Long power blackouts became common. Most importantly, the entire country had to band together and learn how to feed itself, meaning growing its own food without oil.

Last night I was in Greenbelt, MD, to view The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, a documentary about Cuba's struggle to become self-sufficient. Greenbelt, a town secreted just outside Washington's famous Beltway, is one of the original eco-villages, designed to preserve a corridor of greenery amidst the suburban sprawl. From the New Deal Cafe, where the film was being show, what you see mostly is parking lots filled with huge America vehicles. Still, the co-op cafe (which recently voted not to declare bankruptcy) was filled to overflowing with middle-aged hippy types eating bowls of vegetarian chili and eager to find out how Cubans persevered through their own oil collapse.

What Cuba represents is a kind of experiment that the rest of the world can look to, perhaps even a view into the future of a world where the oil wells have run dry. Cubans rediscovered natural farming methods, bringing fertility to the soil with compost, recycling everything and composting with worms. Ox-drawn plows made a big comeback. Just about every green space in the country has been converted into food production. Cubans, whose national dish was pork, have learned to love vegetables. Urban gardens are everywhere, even on the rooftops. Neighborhood produce markets are a common sight and farmers have gained new respect and viable livelihoods.

The U.S. was no help at all in Cuba's transformation. We only tightened our embargo during those years. But could this be a vision of our own future? Can you imagine our happy motoring society reduced to tearing up its perfect lawns and replacing them with vegetable gardens? That's exactly what some activists are advocating. Some communities are already oranizing, preparing for the day when growing food will become a matter of survival. Meanwhile, the rest of the nation goes about its business seemingly without a care...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Whole Foods Does 180 on Farm Flooding

Much better than I, Samuel Fromartz at the Chews Wise blog has reported comprehensively on the disastrous flooding of organic farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin and how Whole Foods has acknowledged acting too quickly when it cancelled orders for produce from the afflicted areas.

Whole foods initially placed an embargo on produce from the flooded farms over concerns that crops may have been contaminated with pathogens from overflowing rivers and streams. Subsequently, a Whole Foods purchasing manager from Chicago flew to the scene for an on-the-ground inspection. Whole Foods reversed the moratorium and is contributing at least $25,000 to a local farm support group.

Most of the affected farmers did not have crop insurance and for some the losses reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those on higher ground were luckier, but some may not be around next year.

Cherry Tomatoes with Roasted Broccoli

One of my favorite sights walking the garden are the cherry tomato plants. They are lit up like Christmas with their clusters of fruit, telling the other plants to get on with it and make hay while the sun shines.

There's always the question what to do with so many ripe cherry tomatoes. You can slice them in half for a very simple summer salad, dressed with a chiffonade of basil and extra-virgin olive oil. They go well with those little balls of marinated mozzarella you sometimes see in the grocery.

I particularly like this recent recipe from Martha Stewart Living that calls for tossing cherry tomato halves with roasted broccoli and white beans. For the beans, I use those marinated giant white beans on display next to the various olives at the Whole Foods. The finished dish, when dressed with some mustard and red wine vinegar, is wonderfully unctuous and flavorful.

Roast the florets from two bunches of broccoli tossed with extra-virgin olive oil and some sliced garlic in a 375-degree oven. The broccoli should be just tender after 15 or 20 minutes. Toss together with a pint of cherry tomatoes, halved, a tablespoon of coarsely chopped fresh oregano and a generous pinch of red pepper flakes. Add 1 1/2 cups of your favorite white beans and a big fistful of spinach, coarsely chopped.

On the side, mix 1 1/2 teaspoons of Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar and 1 teaspoon lemon juice. Season the salad with just enough of the dressing and more extra-virgin olive oil to taste, as well as course salt and freshly ground black pepper.

It's best to do the seasoning just before serving as the vinegar will invariably turn the broccoli brown. This makes a terrific side dish for grilled meat, served with a lively red wine.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

An Evening of Big Flavors

Before serving our corn chowder last night I ran across a small bag of farmers market potatoes in the pantry and added perhaps 12 ounces, diced small, to the soup pot. I have to say it made a real improvement, so if you've been tempted at all by yesterday's takeout on corn chowder, do consider adding potatoes to the recipe.

The chowder served as a first course to a small dinner party that really started at the liquor store. I was picking up some wine for a client and happened to notice several of the shop's employees engaged in a tasting in the back room. This being 11:30 in the morning, I couldn't help but wonder what kind of tasting was going on and I was soon invited to partake in a glass of excellent champagne.

A rare treat for me, and I mentioned that my tastes in wine are fairly plebeian, nothing fancier than a reasonably priced Zinfandel for me, something with lots of character, lots of ripe berries, open, friendly. Well, said the clerk, have I got something for you. And he showed me a gorgeous bottle of 2001 Aida Zinfandel that would not have been affordable on my best day, but was on sale for half the price, he said. On sheer impulse, I bought the thing.

And that was the genesis of this dinner party.

Of course I had to invite my oenophile brother-in-law Tom, who immediately volunteered to bring his own idea of a big Zinfandel. So there I was planning a menu around a couple of luscious Zinfandels, a corn chowder already made and the tomatoes getting riper and riper out in the garden.

What you see pictured above is one of the hors d'oeuvres, a bruschetta with a big slice of Brandywine tomato, fresh pesto sauce, shavings of ricotta salata and a drizzle of olive oil. We picked up a ripe cantaloupe at the farmers market and served it with prosciutto, very simple. With these we served a cocktail my wife made of pomegranate liqueur, grapefruit and vodka.

I purchased a lovely bottle of Argentine chardonnay/viognier at Whole Foods that went very well with the corn chowder. For the main event, I grilled ribeye steaks from grass-fed beef. Tom had brought a 2003 Ridge Pagani Ranch Zinfandel that had all the big berry flavors and accessibility I associate with my favorite red. Inevitably, there was a comparison with the Aida, and just about everyone preferred the much less expensive Ridge.

Well, not so fast, Tom said. The Aida was definitely "tight," as they say in wine circles. There was still a bit of chew to it, the flavors had not opened up. Tom judged this a simple matter of resting--in the decanter or in the bottle--another day. Or maybe it needed to sit in a cool wine cellar another 10 years.

Anyway, bring on dessert, a beautiful peach and raspberry cobbler that my wife had made in individual ramekins using peaches she'd bought at the farmers market down the street that morning. There was a big dollop of vanilla ice cream on each ramekin and Tom had brought a surprise--a delicious bottle of Sauterne.

This was an unusual extravagance for The Slow Cook. But can we say, it was damned good?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Traditional Corn Chowder

The truth is I had corn left over from making spoon bread (see earlier post), four ears to be exact, or just the right amount to make some corn chowder. I was determined to make a chowder that allowed the corn flavor to shine, with the ingredients I had on hand.

This, I imagine, is the way chowders started, with the most basic ingredients and not requiring a trip to the supermarket. Yes, you can put just about anything in your chowder--celery, different colored bell peppers, your favorite herbs, even a big ol' lump of crab meat. But as I said, I wanted to keep this simple, focusing more on extracting as much flavor from my leftover corn as possible. This is the kind of dish a farm family would make at the end of a long day, not something to fuss over.

To make a chowder for six to eight persons, start with four exceedingly fresh ears of your favorite corn. Shuck the corn and remove the kernels by setting a small ceramic bowl upside-down inside a large mixing bowl and cutting the kernels away from the cob with a serrated bread knife. Set the kernels aside. Break the four cobs in half and place them in a pot with 4 cups (1 quart) water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and cook for two hours to create a stock for the chowder. (To keep the cobs submerged in the water, I cover them with a collapsible stainless steaming basket.)

Meanwhile, cut four thick strips of bacon into small pieces and cook them with a bit of vegetable oil over moderate heat in the bottom of a heavy pot or Dutch oven large enough to contain your chowder. (If bacon is not something you eat, substitute vegetable oil for the rendered bacon grease in the next step). Remove the bacon when it is just crispy and brown to your liking. Add 1 medium onion, cut into small dice, to the hot bacon grease or oil, season with salt and cook until soft. Add 1 clove garlic, minced, and cook a few minutes more. Now add the raw corn kernels and the finished corn stock, raise the heat until the chowder comes to a boil, then reduce heat and cook for 30 minutes, or until the corn is soft and the flavors have melded.

While the chowder is still cooking, stir in 1 cup heavy cream (or whole milk if you are watching the fat content). Season with about 1 teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste), 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin and freshly ground black pepper and remove from heat.

At this point I like to process half the chowder in a blender, then add it back to the pot, only because I like a smoother texture. But you don't have to. If you do use the blender, remember to place a kitchen towel over the lid so you don't burn your hand while holding the lid in place. You can make this chowder a day ahead. The flavors will meld while it sits in the refrigerator.

Serve hot, garnished with the browned bacon bits and a generous sprig of fresh cilantro.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Geographic Takes on Ethanol

If you stopped reading National Geographic in grade school you missed the magazine's turn toward a more issue-oriented publication. This month (October) the Geographic takes on the rush to produce biofuels with the subtitle "The Wrong Way, The Right Way." Guess which column the magazine puts corn ethanol in?

"Biofuels as currently rendered in the U.S. are doing great things for some farmers and for agricultural giants like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargil, but little for the environment," the Geographic states. "Corn requires large doses of herbicide and nitrogen fertilizer and can cause more soil erosion than any other crop. And producing corn ethanol consumes just about as much fossil fuel as the ethanol itself replaces."

The magazine continues: "The boom has already pushed corn prices to heights not seen in years, spurring U.S. growers to plant the largest crop since World War II. Around a fifth of the harvest will be brewed into ethanol--more than double the amount only five years ago. Yet such is the thirst for gasoline among SUV-loving Americans that even if we turned our entire corn and soybean crops into biofuels, they would replace just 12 percent of our gasoline and a paltry 6 percent of our diesel, while squeezing supplies of corn- and soy-fattened beef, pork, and poultry. Not to mention Corn Flakes."

Gosh, we could hardly have said it better ourselves, although we might also have mentioned the tortilla crisis brought on in Mexico by the spike in corn prices. Ethanol is literally taking food out of the mouths of the world's poor, and promises to vastly expand the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by fertilizers washing down the Mississippi basin.

The plunge into biofuels and ethanol in particular represents the sheer madness of a culture that can't bear to think of life without an unlimited ability to motor around in automobiles. The U.S. Congress, which was loathe for so many years to increase fuel efficiency standards and has little interest in funding public transporation, has jumped into corn-based ethanol with both feet, creating a huge boon for agribusiness and industrial-scale farmers. (Wanna guess who some of the biggest lobbiests in Washington are?)

Rapid construction of new ethanol plants is breathing new life into some cornbelt communities. "You're almost tempted to get out of the cattle business and sell your corn outright," quips one Nebraska beef rancher.

The problem with corn ethanol, first, is that it delivers about 30 percent fewer miles per gallon than gasoline. The process of producing it also consumes as much energy as it delivers and spews tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

To make fuel, the corn is ground up, mixed with water and then treated with enzymes that convert the grain into alcohol. It's basically the same as any distillation process. To recover the alcohol, the mix has to be heated and in this case the heating is done with natural gas (a rapidly depleting resource) and increasingly coal (a big polluter). And growing corn consumes huge quantities of nitrogen fertilizer--also made from natural gas--and can only be grown with the use of fossil-fuel-burning, industrial-scale farm equipment.

"Biofuels are a total waste and misleading us from getting at what we really need to do: conservation," says Cornell University David Pimentel, an outspoken critic of ethanol.

The Geographic takes a more favorable look at the miracle in Brazil, where the country has given up its dependence on gasoline in favor of fuels made from sugar cane (note the rapidly disappearing rain forests). There are also efforts to make fuel from other forms of biomass and algae. It's well worth a read.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Teaching Kids About Food

Yesterday we began another round of my "food appreciation" classes at a private elementary school here in the District of Columbia.

In the introductory lesson, I work with the kids on the basics: how we perceive food, what happens after we put food in our mouths, the different types of foods and how some are healthier than others.

In one exercise, I have the kids close their eyes and we pass around cups of different foods and herbs to illustrate the role of smell in tasting foods. In another segment, we sample the four taste sensations: salty, bitter, sour, sweet.

To show them how calories work, I apply a blow torch to foods with different caloric values and carbohydrate composition, starting with broccoli, then potato. The kids love it when I torch a couple of marshmallows to illustrate how empty sugar calories are immediately burned and incorporated into the bloodstream. The marshmallows burst into flames, a moment of high drama and hilarity that leads to a brief conversation about diabetes and obesity.

But what really impresses me is what happens when the class ends and the kids file out of the room. Invariably, they beg me for the unused marshmallows. They are so disappointed when I decline. "Didn't we just talk about how bad those are for you?" I scold.

This reminds me of the study conducted earlier this year by the Associated Press finding that most programs aimed at teaching kids to eat better don't work. The U.S. government spends more than $1 billion on such efforts, but sadly, it isn't talking the kids need to stop eating all that junk food. They need their behavior changed.

I recently finished reading Lunch Lessons by Ann Cooper and Lisa Holmes. Their book covers everything from the importance of breakfast to the dangers of pesticides. But what I came away with is the factor most important in shaping kids' eating habits: the way adults eat.

So yesterday I had a queasy feeling as I watched the other after-school instructors standing around the microwave, wolfing down cheap noodle dishes off paper plates, swilling cans of sugary soda, by way of a mid-day meal or snack. Then I took a gander at the Wheat Thins I was munching on and noticed for the first time that they contain high fructose corn syrup. These are the same Wheat Thins the after school children are fed as snack food on a regular basis.

Last year I persuaded the school to stop serving a yogurt full of high fructose corn syrup and find something healthier. The kids never noticed the switch. But now I see we have a lot more work to do with the adults in this crowd.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


The radish seedlings are standing like proud little soldiers after being planted from seed just a few days ago. We are well on our way to a third crop for the year.

But for my sins, the bed where I planted so many rutabaga seeds and beets and turnips--well, it was completely overrun with crab grass within just a few days. Apparently, some grass got into the bed and went to seed. So now getting rid of it has turned into a major project.

Each morning I trek out to that particular bed, get down on my hands and knees and start pulling little crab grass plants out of the ground and tossing them into the compost bucket. Some rain lately makes the job easier as the soil is now moist and the young plants have not had a chance to grow their roots too deeply. I am perhaps three-quarters done with this task.

I work carefully around the beet plants. They've grown several inches tall since I planted the seeds and the crab grass sometimes tangles in the beet roots. Then the beets have to be replanted and you just hope for the best. But I am seeing hardly a sign of the rutabagas or the turnips that should comprise most of this bed. I can only imagine that this latest September heat wave was too much for the tiny plants. It seems that some brassicas are more heat sensitive than others. The radishes and the arugula are doing fine, where the mizuna planted next to the arugula germinated, then withered and disappeared.

My notes for last year indicate I waited a bit too long to plant the fall crop so I wanted to get a jump on it this year. But perhaps I pulled the trigger too soon, or simply did not figure the heat into my calculations. My guess is that when I finally finish pulling all this crab grass (and there seems to be a second flush following the first), I will be planting rutabaga and turnips all over again.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Smothered Okra

I was shopping for green tomatoes at the farmers market over the weekend and though I struck out with the tomatoes I couldn't resist the okra. I bought a heaping pint of pods just on general principles--if the okra is ripe, you should eat some.

Fresh okra is a joy to behold. The pods are unlike any other vegetable with their sharp ridges and phallic pointiness. Fresh okra is unmistakably smooth and bright green (unless you are looking at the burgundy variety) and free of any blemishes. It should also be soft to the squeeze. Any hardness and the okra is likely past its prime, woody and inedible.

It was such a shock seeing the okra at Whole Foods a couple of days later. The pods were shriveled and covered with sunken brown blotches. This is okra that is probably a couple of weeks old already and not worth a plug nickel. If I'd had an extra ten minutes, I would have tracked down the produce manager just to ask why he even bothered to display this nasty old okra. It shouldn't even be offered for sale, and Whole Foods should be ashamed to be seen with it.

I cooked my farmers market okra last night, turning to an old stand-by recipe: smothered okra. I first saw this recipe in Jessica Harris' book on traditional Carribean cooking, Sky Juice and Flying Fish. This is one of those recipes that almost guarantees success every time. The flavors of onion, green bell pepper, okra, tomato and corn all meld perfectly together, seasoned with just salt and pepper. It always comes out tasting delicious, and I've never detected any problem of sliminess with the okra.

Just set a heavy skillet over moderate heat and saute a medium onion sliced into thin strips. Some bacon grease in the pan adds great flavor, but you can use extra-virgin olive oil if you prefer. Add a green bell pepper, season with salt to get the juices flowing out of the vegetables and cook until the onion is softened, then add the okra--a pint or more, stems trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch slices on an angle--and cook another five minutes. Now add corn kernels cut from a couple of cobs, plus a 14-ounce can or diced tomatoes (or use your own plumb tomatoes if you prefer.) Season with freshly ground black pepper, cover and cook gently another 15 minutes or so.

The okra should be soft and flavorful at this point but still have most of its original color. Serve this with your favorites rice dish and maybe some jerked pork or chicken.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Edna's Spoon Bread

A client ordered a birthday party by way of a sit-down dinner this weekend, the perfect opportunity to lay on a feast of the summer's best produce.

The menu I devised started with two passed hors d'oeuvres: Latin-style grilled shrimp with guacamole dip and endive leaves with an herbed goat cheese. First course I envisioned as a plate of artfully arranged slices of heirloom tomatoes with fresh mozzarella cheese and homemade pesto sauce. For the entree, I liked the idea of grilled Niman Ranch pork chops with a plum compote, fried green tomatoes and spoon bread, also known as corn pudding. Dessert had to be peach cobbler, in this case with raspberries and vanilla whipped cream.

Sounds delicious, no? Well, as these things often go in catering, the client for some reason was not keen on the pork chops. Perhaps one of his guests was averse to pork. So that was changed to lamb chops (not a summer dish, to my mind) with a garlicky herb sauce. Oh, and could we do something chocolatey for dessert (I forgot this client is a chocoholic). My wife was not keen on baking anything in this latest heat wave, so she made a chocolate creme brulee with raspberries. Then it turned out this was the week none of the vendors brought green tomatoes to the market and I did not want to sacrifice mine. I substituted my famous three-hour braised green beans.

Then dinner for 11 turned into dinner for 13, when two guests who never RSVP'd showed up. Don't you hate it when that happens? Oh, well, still a wonderful meal.

I was not in attendance at this particular dinner. My wife was playing chef, my sister waiter. But I'm told everything went fabulously, especially the part where the guests found out my sister sings opera, requested a certain aria and she blew everyone's hair back with those big soprano pipes of hers. (There'll be a little extra something in the pay check for that, not to worry.)

But the point of this story is what Southerner's like to call spoon bread, or what we Northerners refer to as corn pudding. To my mind, there's hardly anything better in the world than freshly picked corn on the cob steamed in its husks, then peeled and slathered with butter and eaten as is--still almost too hot to handle--with a sprinkle of course salt and freshly ground black pepper. (The Mexican's go one better: They slather the corn with mayonnaise and dust it all over with grated fresh cheese, one of the most decadent things you can buy in the mercado).

If you must remove the corn from the cob with anything other than your own teeth, I can't think of a better way to prepare it than as spoon bread. It retains the brilliant flavor of fresh corn, and it makes an easy buffet dish or a dramatic presentation cut into rounds and placed strategically on a dinner plate.

The farmers markets are bursting with corn right now. Or perhaps you pass a farm stand on your way to work. Get some corn. Get a dozen ears or so and cook it three different ways, starting with the method described above. You'll be regretting it all winter long if you don't.

For the spoon bread, we follow the recipe in Edna Lewis' book, In Pursuit of Flavor. To make a large ceramic oval, or enough for at least a dozen people (more like 15), start with 2 cups of corn kernels, freshly hulled. You'll need six, maybe eight ears of corn. Remove the husks and the silk. We like to invert a ceramic bowl and place it at the bottom of a big mixing bowl. Stand a corn cob on the ceramic bowl and slice through the kernels as close to the cob as possible so they fall into the bowl. When all of the kernels have been removed, use the back of your knife to scrape all the milky juices from the cob.

Now mix together the wet ingredients, 5 cups milk, 6 eggs, 6 tablespoons melted butter. In a separate bowl, mix together 1 1/2 cups white cornmeal, 2 teaspoons sugar, 2 teaspoons salt and 4 tablespoons baking powder.

Run the corn and the wet ingredients in batches through a blender or food processor to liquefy. (We like to hold back some of the corn kernels to add later to the mix, to retain some texture.) Then add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir to blend. Pour the batter into a buttered casserole and bake about 25 minutes at 375 degrees, or until the spoon bread has set in the middle.

Serve this warm or room temperature with any kind of summer roast or grilled meats. It is especially good with barbecue. Can't you just see it next to a pulled pork sandwich and cole slaw? Add some sweet tea and you are home. My wife used a large biscuit cutter to make rounds of spoon bread for her composed dinner plates. We spent the rest of the afternoon nibbling off the plate of trimmings.

Thank you, Edna.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Can You Say "Flood Insurance"?

Here's a sobering look at the devastation visited upon organic farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin by this summer's historic floods. Note that organic farmers favor the bottom lands, where soil is richer but the risk of getting washed out is highest.

Most of these farmers did not have flood insurance, and a lot of that rich soil just got washed down the Mississippi River. Adding insult to injury, corporate grocery operators such as Whole Foods, who like to promote their support of local produce, immediately cancelled orders with the afflicted farmers, apparently over fears the produce might be contaminated.

Weekend Update

Tom Philpott and the Ethicurean are in a bit of a snit over a New Yorker article about extreme local eating in the Big Apple and I don't get it.

Ethicurean finds it condescending. Philpott calls it "an exercise in glibness over depth."

Are we creating a new sacred cow here around the idea of local food?

Personally, I found the piece by Adam Gopnik smart, witty, irreverent, well-paced, ironic--in short, everything you normally expect from the New Yorker. Was this the learned, weighty tome on local food in the manner of Rachel Carson some might be wishing the New Yorker would undertake? Most certainly not. Perhaps editor David Remnick and his crew are saving that one for later.

Having both arms and both feet invested in growing food here in the District of Columbia, about a mile from the White House, I am ever alert to issues surrounding the idea of feeding one's self in the urban core. So I was eager to follow Gopnik as he traveled along on a brief history of agriculture in the concrete jungle (did you know Brooklyn was at one time considered NYC's bread basket?), then took off in pursuit of a meal consisting of local ingredients strictly from the five boroughs.

Just try finding a local chicken, for instance. Once you get past carrots and lettuce, raising protein in the city is a real issue, if not strictly illegal.

Gopnik spins his tale around the guy who collects honey from bee hives on Manhattan rooftops, and of course wild man Steve Brill, who forages in Central Park, and a secret tilapia farm in a basement at Brooklyn College. Gopnik finds room for a good description of the community farm at Red Hook, where I have a friend working as one of the garden coordinators.

For those perhaps not completely immersed in the concept of eating locally--and I would take that to mean a huge swath of the American public--this was a perfectly adequate yarn about some of the food production going on in places you would least expect it. So I would say to Philpott and Ethicurian, loosen up a little.


Local food is all over the news lately. Two years ago, I stopped writing for The Washington Post food section after the then-editor told me, "I think we've written enough about farmers." That was after I penned a piece about a certain farmer in Southern Maryland whose idea of fun is dressing up in Carhartt overalls and harvesting his ice-bred arugula in the middle of February. Thereafter, you'd have to dig into the Post's business section to find anything about local agriculture.

But lookee here! This week The Post devoted a huge spread to a "chef's challenge" centered on the idea of making meals on a budget from one of the local farmers markets. The play given this piece may actually have been excessive: I had a hard time following. And the budget each chef got to prepare a meal for a family of four was $50. Hardly your typical American family of four, I'd say. Meanwhile, I've written my own farmers market "chef's challenge" for the Edible Chesapeake magazine, due out in October, so don't think The Post was first out of the gate...


Over on the Ruhlman blog, Los Angeles Times food writer Russ Parsons makes some good points about farms, farm size and the importance of farming in a Mediterranean climate such as the one in California, as opposed to trying to make a living selling local produce where the soil is frozen six months out of the year. Seriously, California farmers are capable of producing five annual crops, where farmers in the Northeast are lucky to grow two. Most small-time farmers need regular day-jobs to make ends meet. It's hard to make a buck without being incredibly efficient and wringing every last dollar from the operation. Meaning consumers need to get used to the idea of paying more for locally raised food products.


I'm anxious to see how much play local eating gets after things frost-over here and the farmers markets close. And--since I hardly get tired of harping on demographics in the agriculture sector--while the land available to farm only gets more scarce and more expensive, farmers keep getting older. Only drawbridge operators are older, on average, as a profession, according to this blog post.

Don't get me wrong. I love the idea of local food. Heck, I spend half my time growing my own food, right outside my front door. But I don't think most Americans feel that way. Most Americans are still filling their larders at Wal-Mart, and how is that going to change any time soon? The rest of agriculture is going in another direction in this country.


Or maybe they're just moving out of the country. The latest trend, besides turning every available acre over to corn to make ethanol, apparently is to move the entire operation over the border south. According to the New York Times, some farmers are having such a hard time finding laborers to pick their crops, they're renting land in Mexico where labor is not only cheap but steady.

I can't think of anything less local.


Here's the self-told tale of one would-be Pennsylvania dairy farmer and how quickly he went bust when an absence of local infrastructure and an overly ambitious business plan conspired to thwart him.


I leave you with some images from our local farmers markets. Two new markets have been added to our area, bringing to five the numbers of markets where fresh, local produce is sold within a one-mile radius here in our corner of the District of Columbia. In addition to beautiful vegetables, we have a huge selection of breads, cheeses and pastured meats. No shortage of local produce here--at least in August.