Saturday, March 31, 2007

Where Food Comes From

Why does real food cost more, you ask? Take a look at the man on the left, down on his kness planting onions by hand. That's Mike Klein, a farmer friend from Bandywine, MD, who is planting crops for his summer subscription service.

I paid a visit to Mike and his wife Michelle yesterday to see what they were up to. This is a busy time for farmers, preparing fields and planting. The Klein's spread comprises about 11 acres 35 miles south of Washington, DC. They bought the place a few years ago to fulfill a longtime ambition of getting closer to the earth. Originally, they had studied aqua-culture in California.

Well, Mike is very close to the earth these days. In fact, he has his hands in it most of the time. When he's not out in the fields, he's working in his germination room or in the greenhouse, starting tomato plants and eggplants, peppers and a variety of herbs.

I told Mike he could have me for a couple of hours and he put me right to work planting onions. That's what you see him doing here with a bag of Stuttgarter onion sets. The field we're planting is about 50 yards long and consists of three rows that Mike has "disced" with his tractor. The tractor pulls a set of eight saucer-shaped discs that turn the soil, breaking the crusty top layer and creating eight shallow groves or furrows to plant the onions in.

"How's your back?" Mike asks me.

I'm not sure exactly why he asks. But I soon find out. Shortly I am on my knees as well, reaching into the bag of small onion sets and pressing them, one at a time, into the narrow furrows about three inches--or "three fingers"--apart. Reaching across all eight grooves is too much, so Mike advises working down one side of the row, then tackling the other side, planting four grooves with each pass.

It's reach into the bag for a handful of onion sets, turn, stretch to plant one groove, pressing each small onion into the soil just far enough for the root end to make good contact. Then turn, reach into the bag again, start with another groove and repeat the process. You have to position your feet so they don't disturb the onions already planted in the neighboring row. Twisting, turning, reaching, bending. No wonder Mike asked about my back.

My wife has been threatening to sign me up for yoga. All I have to say is, Honey, yoga ain't got nothin' on planting onions.

I ask Mike if there aren't machines to do this kind of work. "There probably are," he says. But his onion crop isn't big enough to justify the investment.

After 30 minutes or so, I'm starting to feel the pain in my back. I shift positions, leaning more to one side, then another. I try sitting on my butt. I find that I can plant the two farthest grooves perched on my knees, then gain some relief by sitting back on my hindquarters to plant the closer two grooves. I look up: After an hour's work, I've planted about a 2o-foot length. Only about 130 feet more to go.

Mike, who's been working on another project in the barn, comes over to check my progress. He grabs a few onions and starts planting opposite me, on the other side of the row. I can't help noticing that his planting is about three times faster than mine. "I have a vested interest," he says.

Later he will cover the rows of onion sets with hay to hold down weeds and retain moisture in the soil.

We chat about the price of fuel, about how urban sprawl is sucking up so much farmland. New homes, what we call "McMansions," are popping up just down the road from Mike's farm. The cost of land makes farming close to the city an expensive proposition. The last farm inside Washington's famous beltway recently gave up the ghost. Mike and Michelle are lucky they bought their land when they did. They might not be able to afford it now.

To save our backs, we call it quits on onion planting for the day. Mike has another project for me, helping remove the black plastic from another field. Last year the plastic was serving as mulch for several rows of tomato plants. The plastic sheets are about four feet wide. Grass has grown over the edges so densely that there's no removing the plastic by hand.

Mike switches out appliances on the back of his old International tractor, replacing the furrowing discs with what looks like a pair of huge fishing hooks. Mike's plan is to run the tractor straddling the rows of black plastic. The hooks will dig into the soil, cutting through the grass and loosening the outside edges of the plastic.

My job is to come behind Mike and pull the plastic free of the soil.

The plastic runs in long, continues sheets. So I am pulling and shaking off clods of soil and hunks of sod and pieces of dessicated tomato vine. Tug a little, shake a little. Most of the plastic comes loose. Sometimes it tears into ungainly pieces. It's dirty work. Dust and sod fly everywhere.

We finally remove most of the plastic. It lies in big piles next to the planting rows. Mike hands me some empty chicken feed bags and I walk to each pile, stuffing the plastic into the bags. Fortunately, this plastic is pretty lightweight and stuffs easily.

We had planned to get a bite for lunch. But already the day is slipping away. Mike has a long list of chores. And I want to get home before rush-hour starts.

"Maybe next time," Mike says.

He hands me a small paper bag of onion sets. It seems Mike always has a bag of something to share. Now I can show my 7-year-old daughter how to plant onions in our garden at home.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

If it's Thursday... must be delivery day for our box of goodies from the farm.

Let's see. What do we have here...

...a gallon bag of mesclun...some Siberian kale...tender collards...a Ziploc of salad mix with tat soi and Asian mustard greens...English cress. And, for us "Yes-eggs" subscribers, one dozen eggs from Brett Grohsgal's brown chickens. A veritable riot of produce, and it isn't even April yet.

I've mentioned the subscription from Even' Star Farm so many times I thought you might like to see it. Brett gets up--oh, about 4 in the morning--usually on Thursdays to make the almost-two-hours drive from his 75-acre spread outside Lexington Park, Maryland, and drop off more than 100 of these boxes to clients in and around the nation's capital. We drive about 15 minutes from our home in downtown D.C. to fetch our box off the front porch of a "neighborhood coordinator" in Chevy Chase. (You get a big discount on the subscription if you coordinate your neighborhood.)

We are among the "winter" subscribers, a season that runs from early November into May. Brett loves his brassicas, hence the profusion of cresses and collards and tat sois and arugulas. We've come to love them, too. But there's so much in one box that we share the subscription with my sister and her husband. The cost: $311 per couple for the season.

As good as the vegetables and the eggs--and sometimes jams and spice mixes and flower arrangements--are the notes Brett sends out each week telling us what's on the menu. Who knew a person could write so much, and so vividly, about the contents of a box? Brett's missives are written with such gusto and precision--they are so detailed--that I've saved every one going back three seasons now as. As well as providing evidence of every seasonal thing we have consumed for the past three years, Brett's e-mails are a window into the mind of a truly impassioned philosopher-farmer, someone who cares deeply about the land and how we feed ourselves. I'm not sure you could just bind them all together into a book. If you did, it would constitute a kind of encyclopedia of brassicas and the life of a subscription farmer, the kind of book I imagine Alan Davidson--a man of equally intense interests, and author of The Oxford Companion to Food--might write.

Brett also operates a summer subscription. But by then we will be swimming in the produce from our own front-yard garden here in the District of Columbia. We also like to see what the local farmer's markets are offering.

Now to figure out what to do with all this stuff. So many greens, so little time. Salad? Vegetable saute? Or, could there be a frittata in our future? A little goat cheese, anyone?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Spring Kale Harvest

A few snips here, a few snips there, and in just a few minutes we have a bowl full of kale, enough to feed four easily.

This is the kale I planted September 20 of last year. The variety is called Red Russian and it survived a balmy December and January, then a bitterly cold February. I could let it go a bit longer, but I need to start replanting this bed. Such is the life of a vegetable: It provides a few months of beauty in the garden at most, only to be cut down in its prime and wind up on someone's dinner plate. It is awfully convenient to be able to walk out the front door and gather dinner--or at least the side dish.

Tonight I am preparing this kale the same way I normally cook Swiss chard. I cut the greens into manageable pieces (about 10 ounces would be enough for four persons), then cook in a large pot of salted water until just tender, about 10 minutes. I then strain the greens through a colander, rinse with cold water and press the excess water out of them. Meanwhile, oil the bottom of a heavy skillet with extra-virgin olive oil and heat it over moderately high heat. Add 1/2 red onion cut into thin strips. Reduce the heat and cook the onion until soft and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Now add the cooked kale to the skillet, mix well with the onions, add another tablespoon of olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

I finish the dish with pomegranate molasses. If you are not familiar with this product, it is usually available in a small bottle at Middle Eastern groceries. It is a thick syrup with a strong flavor of pomegranates and a muscular tang. Use sparingly. I pour 1 or 2 teaspoons into the kale and mix. Serve warm, perhaps with a roasted chicken or grilled lamb.

The Stuffed Ham that Wasn't

Today I would have been curing our ham for the Southern Maryland Stuffed Ham we had envisioned as the centerpiece of a family Easter buffet. Alas, the fresh ham that was promised at our local Whole Foods turned out to be a fairy tale, a chimera, the figment of a meat clerk's imagination.

I'll call him G.

My wife had a long conversation with G the day before yesterday. This after we decided that a stuffed ham--a delicacy of Southern Maryland, more specifically, of St. Mary's County--would be just the thing to serve the extended family Easter Sunday. A stuffed ham is unusual in that the ham itself is corned. You've probably had ham a dozen different ways and never seen a corned ham. Well, it is a bit of an oddity, cured like corned beef. You can buy corned hams at the local grocery in St. Mary's County, but that being almost two hour's drive from us here in the District of Columbia, we were going to corn our own. And that means first finding a fresh ham, a ham that has not been salted, injected, smoked, cooked or any of those other things. Just plain ham, the way it came off the pig.

Our cookbook collection is extensive. But nowhere do we own a discription of how to corn a ham. The idea is to soak the ham over a long period in a brine of salt, sugar, spices, water and a little sodium nitrate. We did some poking around on the internet and when we finally found what looked like a reliable recipe, we checked the calendar and realized we barely had the 12-15 days required to cure this ham. We needed a fresh ham fast, so we could make the brine and get the ham in the brine and find a container big enough to fit the whole thing...

That's when my wife called G, he being one of the clerks in the meat department at our local Whole Foods. Could G get us a fresh ham? Sure, no problem, G said. He'd place the order and we'd have our fresh ham the next day.

On that basis, we called The Sausage Maker (that's a company, not a person) in Buffalo, NY, the closest source we could find for sodium nitrate. Sodium nitrate is not essential to a corned ham, but it does help retain some of the pink color in the meat. We inquired if we could get overnight delivery of a $8.99 pound bag of The Sausage Maker's "Insta-Cure #2" (their monniker for the sodium nitrate). Glory, glory, the answer was Yes! And only $25 for the shipping.

Shortly after noon yesterday, a UPS man showed up at the front door with our bag of "Insta-Cure #2," now valued at $34. Suddenly the juices were flowing. I could see myself mixing the brine, the ham and all the spices going into the brine. So I made the call to Whole Foods to make sure our ham was ready for pickup. But this time on the other end of the line was confusion.

"What kind of ham did you say?" said the clerk who answered the phone. "Fresh ham," I replied. "My wife called yesterday. G said it would be in today." There was a pause. "Uh, can you hold for a minute?"

Well, one minute stretched into three minutes, then five. A second person picked up the phone. I explained again why I was calling. It was as if the conversation with G the day before had never happened. I was on hold again. Then the first clerk returned to the phone. I asked to speak with G, but--and isn't this always the case?--today just happened to be G's day off. Or he was working the night shift. Or something. So again I told the story of how my wife had talked to G, and G had told us the ham would be in today. Again I was put on hold while this other clerk went "in the back" to see if he could find a fresh ham listed on the day's deliveries.

When next I heard from the clerk, he said there was no record of any fresh ham being delivered. He would have to call "the warehouse" to see if there was any way we could get a fresh ham. Could he possibly call me back after he talked to "the warehouse?" I inquired.

Sure enough, a few minutes later the clerk called me at home to deliver the good news/bad news scenario. Yes, he said, they could get me a fresh ham. But not until Sunday, five days over the horizon and much too late to guarantee our ham would be properly cured.

I called our other favorite meat supplier on Capitol Hill. "We could have it for you Thursday," said the voice at Union Meats. Alas, still too late.

Of course, in the final analysis, it's all our fault. We should have been better prepared with a recipe, clearer on the long curing time involved. We should have marked our calendar. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Oh, you're probably wondering what the "stuffed" part of this ham is. Well, that would be greens, such as kale, collards, spinach, and spices jammed into big slits in a 20-pound piece of boned ham. Then you wrap it in a pillowcase and boil for several hours (according to one recipe, at least).

And no, that is not me in the picture above, but rather a woman considered the culinary queen of St. Mary's County. Here she is, slicing stuffed ham.

Sadly, not our stuffed ham. Maybe next year.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Edible Buds

For a vegetable gardener, a flowering plant usually means an ending is nigh. The vegetable "bolts," then goes to seed and is no longer edible. Or at least not edible in the usual way. Our genius farmer friend Brett Grohsgal, being ever so resourceful as a farmer must, harvests the flowers from his bolting plants and sends them along in our weekly subscription packages.

Here you see the yellow flowers of the napini plant. Napini, like its cousin rapini, is a member of the brassica family, which includes cabbage, kale, collards, mustard and so forth. A distinguishing feature of these vegetables is the four-petaled flower they bear. It's usually yellow. But on the right in this picture are arugula flowers. They are white. All are edible. I add them to a salad and they give it the same peppery zest as the parent vegetables from which they bloom.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Accidental Roast Pork

This is how an accidental roast pork happens:

I pulled the roast out of the freezer several days ago. It was one of the bone-in loin roasts we brought back from our farmer friend's matanza earlier in the month. But then we ended up throwing a dinner party for 10 people. The roast wasn't big enough.

So there it sat in the refrigerator. I took it out of the fridge earlier in the day and left it on the kitchen counter to come up to room temperature, figuring we'd make a family meal out of it later. But on the way back from our friend Mike Klein's farm in the afternoon, when we stopped for a long-anticipated soft ice cream cone at the corner grocery in Brandywine, MD, the store's computer was down and the wait for a cone was interminable. We left without our cone and my 7-year-old daughter was in tears for hours. Check that: She was in full melt-down for hours, and we figured that the African drum recital she was supposed to perform in later in the day was off. But at 4 pm, just 15 minutes before she was supposed to perform, my daughter stopped crying, looked at me and announced, "Dad, we have to go! Let's hurry."

The drum performance that was supposed to happen at 4:15 didn't take place till 6. I spent most of the time napping in an armchair at the Russian Cultural Affairs Office (it's a long story). When the recital was over, my daughter felt she deserved a soft ice cream cone from McDonald's. So we stopped at Mickie D's for the cone. It was past 6:30 when we got home. And there sat this wonderful farm-raised pork roast staring me in the face. I was not about to stick it back in the fridge. This sucker was going to get roasted one way or the other.

Isn't this how most family meals happen?

My point being that we usually can't stop everything and hover over a pork roast for two hours. It has taken me years to develop a successful technique so that I can actually place a roast in the oven and predict, more or less, what will happen without sitting there and monitoring it every five seconds. There are a few essentials:

First, a quality piece of meat. My first choice would be a bone-in loin roast from the middle of the rack, and preferably from a reputable producer such as Niman Ranch or a local farmer. The average pork roast from the supermarket is raised in a pig factory and bred to have as little fat on it as possible. Roasting this factory-type loin is almost like cooking a meat roll from the deli counter. It is especially hard not to overcook the average supermarket roast to the point that it is as dry as shoe leather, particularly if you are following the recommendations of the USDA, which are to cook that pork to 160 degrees. That, friends, is a joke. But more on that later.

If you must use a supermarket pork loin, try brining it according to any number of different recipes available. This will add flavor and moisture to the roast.

The second thing you need to successfully roast a pork loin is an accurate thermometer. My first choice would be a digital thermometer with a probe that can be left in the roast while it is cooking and an alarm feature that tells you when the interior of the meat has reached the desired temperature. My second choice would an analog instant-read thermometer, the kind most chefs have in their coat pocket.

(Note: you also need to know where the sensor is on your probe thermometer. The probe looks like a thick needle. Somewhere along the length of that needle is an indent. That is where the sensor is located and this part of the probe should be inserted into the middle of the roast when you are taking its temperature. Thrust the probe into the meat on a 45-degree angle.)

Third would be a clean oven whose workings are quite familiar to you. Most ovens do not work the same. Some are much older than others. So many recipes simply will not perform the way they were intended in your particular oven. My preferred method for roasting is not in an oven at all, but over hot coals on our Weber rotisserie.

A couple of years ago I roasted numerous pork loins in preparation for a newspaper article. As a result, I came to prefer a sear-roast technique, meaning, I browned the roast in a skillet on the stove before placing it in the oven. I found this to be particularly significant for supermarket-style roasts because they are so lean and don't want to brown particularly well in the oven.

I also found that a fairly low oven temperature results in a higher success rate for roasting pork loin. The reason is physics: A large piece of meat at a higher oven temperature stores lots of heat. It continues cooking--or "coasting"--after you remove it from the oven. With the oven set high, it is very easy to coast right past your desired finished temperature, even when the meat is just resting on the cutting board waiting to be carved. (Most of the time, the internal temperature of the roast will increase five, 10, or 15 degrees after it's been removed from the oven, depending on the size of the roast and the oven temperature.)

Most cookbook authors neglect to go into all these details. And there is a lot of careless literature out there on how "doneness" translates into temperature readings. I applaud Bruce Aidells for being one of the noteworthy exceptions to this rule. If you really love pork, I recommend Aidells' book "Bruce Aidells's Complete Book of Pork," (even with the unnecessary 's' after the apostrophe) as well as his earlier work, "The Complete Meat Cookbook."

Contrary to what the USDA, common folklore and most meat thermometers would have you believe, the ideal finished temperature for pork is not 160 degrees, but more like 145-155 degrees. Unfortunately, this 160-degree mark has become the common benchmark. It dates to a time when people actually fed their pigs garbage and there was a threat of trichinosis in pork. That is not the case in today's commercial pork industry. Of course, you must let your conscience be your own guide.

All of which brings me to my method for a great pork roast:

Remove the roast from the regrigerator about two hours before cooking to come up to room temperature. Season the roast aggressively with salt and pepper. I like to pound garlic, salt and sage in a mortar and pestle and stuff this mixture into deep slits in the roast.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Heat a large, heavy skillet over moderately high heat on the stove. Cover the bottom of the skillet with extra-virgin olive oil. Brown the roast on all sides, using a large pair of tongs to hold the roast in position if necessary.

If using an oven-safe, digital probe thermometer, now would be the time to insert it into the meat at a 45-degree angle, aiming to get the sensor into the center of the roast. Place roast in oven fat-side up. The roast may be in a roasting pan, on a rack, or simply laid on a baking sheet. Alternatively, I just put the roast directly on a rack in the middle of the oven and place a baking sheet underneath it to catch the drippings. This exposes the roast to the radiant oven heat from all sides.

Aim to remove your roast from the oven when the internal temperature reaches 135 to 140 degrees. Depending on the size of the roast, the meat will "coast" to somewhere around that magic 145-155 number while it is resting on the cutting board. Your cooking time will probably be between 1 1/2 and 2 hours. Give the roast a 15-20 minute rest on the cutting board. When you cut into it, there should be just a hint of pinkness in the middle. Don't worry if your roast has gone a bit past that state. You just want to avoid a tough, dry, overcooked roast.

And don't beat yourself up if your roast doesn't come out perfectly the first time. If I accomplish anything in this post, it would be to impress on you all the different factors that need to be considered in roasting meat. Getting it right takes a lot of practice.

In our own case, I measured the temperature of the roast several times with an instant-read thermometer. (My digital probe is busted. I have terrible luck with them.) The first reading was 75 degrees. The second was 110 degrees. The third was 125 degrees. At that point I asked my wife to pull the roast in 10 minutes. When I came back downstairs 20 minutes later, the roast was resting on a cutting board and the temperature was climbing past 155 degrees. Yikes! But that's just how fast a roast can go from "not just yet" to "too much!" (Or maybe I just didn't have the thermometer is the right spot?)

It was delicious, though. Just a hint of pinkness. Streaks of fat, dark meat, light meat, like you'd never see in a supermarket loin. Not even Niman Ranch gets this good. It was heavenly.

Truffle Oil

When I appeared before the Garden Club of Annapolis last week the misstress of ceremonies by way of introduction ticked off some of the bullet points in my bio: Former newspaper reporter, caterer, personal chef, gardener, teacher.
“And what does that mean, exactly, ‘The Slow Cook,’?” she asked when she got to the moniker I use for this blog. “Is that something you do on a grill?”

"No,” I replied. “That’s more like the weekend we spent recently on our friend’s farm, killing a bunch of pigs and making sausage out of them.”

There were audible gasps.

Well, not everything I do involved killing a pig or cooking all day. Sometimes it just involves rich, wonderful flavors and impeccable ingredients. Into that category would fall truffle oil. I don't use truffle oil often, but I do keep a small bottle in my fridge for special occasions. Truffle oil is probably the closest I will ever get to using real truffles in my cooking. Just a few drops impart a truckload of flavor and can bind unlikely combinations of ingredients into something sublime. Example: this raw salad of shaved fennel and portobello mushrooms.
For Four Persons

1 medium fennel bulb

2 portobello mushrooms, cleaned (use a teaspoon or grapefruit spoon to remove the gills)

extra virgin olive oil

generous squeeze of lemon juice

truffle oil

salt to taste

Slice the fennel bulb and mushroom very thinly. (I cut the portobello caps in half first). It helps to use a mandoline or other vegetable slicer. Toss together in a bowl. Mix in some olive oil until the salad is just moist and glistening. Season with lemon juice. Add a drizzle of truffle oil, or just enough that the salad is frangrant with the oil. Season with salt and serve.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Check Out Garden Rant

The story of the evolution of Children's Studio School Garden is the lead in today's Garden Rant blog. Garden rant is read by editors, designers and gardeners on both sides of the Atlantic. Our friend Susan Harris, the webmaster at D.C. Urban Gardeners, got me to write about my trip to Anapolis this week and the talk I gave to the Garden Club of Annapolis. Lots of good writing over there on Garden Rant. Consider bookmarking it.

Now all I have to do is figure out how to show just the link instead of the whole damn url.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Giving the Schedule Over to Gardening

I had meant to write about the bane of my existence--my refrigerator--in this space. Funny how the gardening side of The Slow Cook has suddenly raised its seaonal head and completely taken over.

On Wednesday I was cloistered with the ladies from the Annapolis Garden Club. My mother-in-law, who lives on the water and hangs with the garden club, had signed me up to speak about the 1,600-square-foot container garden we'd built last year at my daughter's charter school here in the District of Columbia. By way of introduction, the mistress of ceremonies was ticking off the bullet points in my bio when she stumbled over the monniker on this food blog.

“And what does that mean, exactly, ‘The Slow Cook,’?” she asked. “Is that something you do on a grill?”

"No,” I replied. “That’s more like the weekend we spent recently on our friend’s farm, killing a bunch of pigs and making sausage out of them.”

There were audible gasps. Maybe that part didn't go over so well.

But the ladies of the garden club were impressed with the show. They treated me like a rock star.

So that afternoon I drove to my new secret spot and dug up some compost for the school garden. The soil in the containers has sunk several inches since last year...

Yesterday morning I was at a Catholic elementary school with the crew from the Washington Youth Garden, which operates on the grounds of the National Arboretum. Our assignment was to bake bread with about 20 10-year-olds. It was a good lesson, teaching the kids the basics of wheat flour, yeast, proofing the yeast, techniques for mixing and kneading and then forming the dough into a small loaf. Each student wrapped their loaf in a small aluminum pan to take home and bake. I baked mine and it was delicious. The Youth Garden has invited me to join in future events, to which I say, heck yeah!

In the PM I met with two representatives of Casey Trees to discuss a public information campaign around tree boxes. Casey Trees is a non-profit that has been endowed specifically to increase the tree canopy in the District of Columbia. Being a founding member of a new gardening group--D.C. Urban Gardeners--I've been scouting public service opportunities. Tree boxes are an everywhere fact of urban life, but few people know how to treat the boxes properly and care for the trees. So we are going to be all over that with talks and slide shows.

Then I went back to my secret spot and collected another load of compost. Today I was out planting broccoli early, and now I'm getting ready to fetch still more compost. Who said making food isn't hard work? By next week, we should be ready to start planting in our schoolyard container garden...

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Not Enough Hours...

I've been commiserating with Kevin over at Seriously Good about not having enough hours in the day for cooking and writing and working. Well here's a news flash: It's Spring, and food needs to be planted.

What you're looking at here is a view north on our corner lot in the District of Columbia. I started working this bed with a stirrup hoe yesterday. It was thick with chickweed, so there was a matt of roots. The stirrup hoe is just what it sounds like: a metal piece shaped like a stirrup at the end of a long handle. The stirrup jiggles back and forth, so you can force it an inch or two under the soil level. Jiggling the blade along it cuts weeds (or last year's plants) off at the roots. No need for turning the soil too deeply and disturbing all those worms and micro-organisms that are so beneficial to the soil.

I then spread a thin layer of well-rotted compost over the bed and work that into the soil. Then I come back and level out the soil with my hands. I suppose I could use a rake. But it feels so good to sift the soil through your hands and break the small clods with your fingers. Plus, there's always broken glass and stones that need to be picked out of the beds and pitched.

I've laid a piece of clothesline down the middle of the bed, dividing it roughly in half. I use two lengths of oak trim from the scrap pile to measure small squares for planting individual seed varieties.

This particular bed falls into shade around noontime this time of year, so I planted parsley and chervil at the shadiest end. The bed will get more sun as the days pass. There are large squares for beets, frisee endive and mizuna, smaller squares for arugula, Treviso radicchio, cilantro, Tokyo Bekana and chervil. Finally I reserved two very large rectangles for red giant mustard and ragged edge mustard. We love braised mustard greens around here, and I'm going to make more of an effort to see that we have some growing all season long. Same for arugula. We crave arugula in our salads. We have a small patch that survived the winter. So that marks the first year we've had arugula year 'round.

Many of these seeds came from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. That's a company local to Virginia, so its offerings are more oriented toward our part of the world.

I've given up trying to label the plants in my plots. Last year I saved yogurt containers. These I cut into wide strips and labeled with a permanent marker to identif my seed beds. But the writing always seemed to fade in the weather. A farmer friend suggested using scraps of Venetian blinds. But what I do now is simply plot out everything in a spiral-bound notebook. Whenever I need to know what I planted, I just go back and look in the book.

Let's see. Red giant mustard matures in 43 days. That would mean braised mustard greens around May 3. I can hardly wait.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Slaughter at Sea

Recognize the fish in this picture? If nothing else, you should know this is a fish we should not be be eating. It's the bluefin tuna, highly prized by sushi chefs everywhere. And don't we love our tuna sushi? Unfortunately, bluefin tuna will soon go the way of the Atlantic cod and the American bison unless humans check their appetite for seafood along with their rapacious fishing practices.

That's the word in the latest edition of National Geographic. Remember when you opened National Geographic to see pictures of erupting volcanoes, topless native dancers and for the incredibly detailed maps of the world? The magazine is trying to be more relevant, less lofty, and has tackled all sorts of issues in recent years. The April edition, focusing on the world's oceans and fisheries, is a good reminder that we foodies need to be more aware of what we cook and what kind of environmental sensitivity we expect from our favorite restaurant chefs.

The bluefin tuna is a prime example. It has been overfished to the point that 90 percent of the stock has been completely eliminated in recent decades. Limits and quotas have been imposed, but are hardly enforced. The NG correspondent recounts taking to the air over the Mediterranean during spawning season and finding several spotting planes illegally aloft, signalifing fishing vessels where to find the bluefin.

"There is no way for the fish to escape--everything is high-tech," NG
quotes one tuna spotter pilot as saying. "I am an environmentalist, and I
couldn't stand the way they fished with no care for the quotas. I saw
these people taking everything. They catch whatever they want. They just see
money on the sea. They don't think what will be there in ten years."

The same issue describes steps taken by New Zealand to guard its oceanic resources, as well as a small village in Newfoundland reeling from the collapse of the cod industry. The National Geographic account is actually pretty tame. For a more complete description of how the world is destroying its fisheries, pick up a copy of The End of the Line, by British journalist Charles Clover. Clover tells how European inspectors and their complicit governments routinely look the other way when illegal catches are brought to market. He also describes how European union countries, especially Spain, along with Russia and others, buy off the governments of small nations so they can park their huge trawlers off-shore, scoop up all the fish and leave the natives wondering where their primary source of protein went.

Governments and environmentalists are now mulling these dire bullet points:

In the past 50 years, populations of large fish species - including tuna, swordfish, marlin, sharks, cod, halibut and flounder - have decreased 90 percent worldwide.

A total of 98 species are overfished, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. As a result, half of all U.S. fisheries and a quarter of the major fish stocks worldwide are in jeopardy of an abrupt, severe decline from which they may never recover.

Fish stocks have collapsed in nearly one-third of all ocean fisheries, and all commercially valuable world fish stocks could completely collapse by 2048.

What's a cook to do? There are four main areas of concern: Fish species that have been overfished; fishing methods that wreck the enviornment, such as trawling with rigs that lay waste to the seafloor; seafood production that harms the environment, such as certain types of open-water fish farming that pollute the oceans; and seafood that contains toxins such as mercury and PCBs.

For instance, you might have thought buying farm-raised salmon was doing the fish population a favor. But ocean environmental groups urge consumers to stay away from farm-raised salmon on grounds that it pollutes the seas and infects wild fish with disease. They would prefer you purchase wild-caught salmon from Alaska. (The fisheries around Alaska are cited as among the few sustainably managed in the world, along with New Zealand and Iceland.)

Along with bluefin, several other species you might find at your local seafood market are on the "avoid" list: monkfish, orange roughy, Florida pompano, farmed salmon, black tiger shrimp, skate, red snapper (some varieties), tilapia from China and Taiwan, blueline tilefish, flounder.

For complete listings of which fish to buy and which to avoid, consult the user friendly listings from the Monterey Bay Aquarium at Other valuable resources are the listings provided by the Blue Ocean Institute here and here

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Chilaquiles Smackdown

Three years ago my wife and I made one of our regular pilgrimages to Mexico and discovered chilaquiles. The vacation soon turned into a daily quest for breakfast so that we could eat more of our new favorite Mexican food.

If you have never heard of chilaquiles, it is what Mexicans do with their leftover tortillas. Since tortillas are a factor at virtually every meal in Mexico, leftovers are not uncommon. You cut the tortillas into pieces, fry them (traditionally in lard), then smoother them in a piquant red or green sauce with some white onion, then garnish this mash with fresh cheese (queso fresco), sour cream (crema) and cilantro. Some people like eggs with their chilaquiles, others prefer chorizo sausage. The be-all and end-all of chilaquiles is the melding of the sauce with the cheese and the crema, the texture of the onion complimenting just a bit of chew from the fried tortillas as they begin to soak up the sauce. This makes recycling old tortillas seem like a genius idea.

Throughout Mexico you will see chilaquiles on the brunch menus at big hotels, as well as in the food stalls or "fondas" in the local markets. Like hashed browned potatoes, there are terrific versions of chilaquiles and others that find any number of ways to fail. Some bad chilaquiles are made with the kind of tortilla chips out of bag that you would normally use to dip into salsa. Another version I don't care for cooks the tortillas in the sauce until they become a porridge. This year we experimented, making some chilaquiles with packaged tostados from the grocery store. They were not nearly as good as the ones we make with tortillas we fry ourselves.

A good batch of chilaquiles has just enough chew to make the teeth moan with pleasure. So simple, so good. We had to have more when we got home from Mexico, so we started an annual (sometimes) chilaquiles brunch with our friends Keith and Janice. Like us, they are wild for traditional ethnic foods and there are few places they haven't traveled. Keith makes the green sauce for the brunch, while Janice prepares her famous frijoles, or well-fried beans. I handle the red sauce, the chorizo and the condiments.

This year we were 16 people at the brunch. It all happens very quickly. You spread some oil in the bottom of a frying pan, saute the onions briefly, then pour in some sauce and mix it up with the fried tortillas. Just as the chips begin to wilt you dump the mix onto a buffet platter and invite guests to start making their own plates. Meanwhile, Keith and I were poaching eggs and serving those as well.

This is comfort food no one can resist. The only thing we plan to do differently next year is poach the eggs ahead and simply reheat them. That will eliminate some of the stress.

Here are the basic procedures to feed 16 persons:

To fry the tortillas, figure three tortillas per person and purchase the appropriate bag of 5-inch corn tortillas at the grocery. Slice the tortillas into 1 1/2-inch pieces (use a serrated bread knife to slice a stack of tortillas into four sections, then rotate the stack 90 degress and slice into threes). If using lard, cover the bottom of a heavy frying pan with 1/2 inch of melted lard, then fry the tortillas in batches till golden. Drain on paper towels. If your friends are vegetaran, use vegetable oil. You can also fry the tortillas in your deep fat fryer.

For the red sauce:

4 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil

1 white onion, peeled and diced small

3 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed and roughly chopped

1 28-ounce can plus 1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, with juice

2 chipotle chilies in adobo

1 cup chicken stock or broth

2 teaspoons dried epazote (or substitute 2 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican)

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 bay leaf

Heat 2 tablespoons lard or oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven. Saute onion and garlic until onion is soft, about 10 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and cook about 1 hour. Remove from heat. Remove bay leaf. In batches, mix sauce in blender until smooth. Rinse out cook pot.

Return pot to stove and heat remaining 2 tablespoons lard or oil. Pour sauce into oil and stir to blend. Cook until sauce has reduced slightly and is thick like a pasta sauce. (Cooking sauces in oil is traditional in Mexico.) Set sauce aside until ready to use. Can be made several days in advance.

For the green sauce:

2 1/2 pounds fresh tomatillos, husks removed, cleaned

4 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil

1 medium white onion, peeled and diced small

3 cloves garlic, chopped fine

3 Serrano chilies, seeds removed, chopped fine

½ cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves

2 teaspoons dried epazote (or substitute 2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican)

salt to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Arrange tomatillos on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Place in oven and roast 45 minutes, or until tomatillos are soft.

Meanwhile, in a sauté pan over medium-low heat, sweat the onion, garlic and Serrano chilies in 2 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil until onions are soft, about 10 minutes. Spoon into a food processor with cooked tomatillos, and cilantro. Pulse to a coarse puree.

Over moderately high heat, heat remaining 2 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil in a heavy skillet. Pour in pureed sauce. Add epazote. Cook vigorously until thick, about 5 minutes. Season with salt as needed. Remove from heat and reserve.

To serve the chilaquiles, have plates and condiments ready. In addition to the queso, crema, cilantro, chorizo, refritos and eggs, you can also display chopped lettuce, diced tomato, avocado--whatever you like.

You will also need one or two white onions, thinly sliced, to finish the cooking.

Coat a pan with lard or vegetable oil and, over moderatly high heat, toss in a fistful of white onion slices and cook just a minute or two. Then add about two cups of sauce and continue cooking until it begins to bubble. Add enough tortilla chips and mix well. There should be just enough chips, and just enough sauce, so that the mixture is wet, but the chips are not swimming in sauce.

When the chips begin to soften, quickly transfer them to a platter so that guests can dig in and add condiments as they choose. Great with Mexican beer or Bloody Marys--or try making Bloody Maria's, substituting Tequila for vodka and spicing it with cumin.

No Wine Snobs Here

My brother-in-law took exception to my referring to him as "a bit of a wine snob." He is such a good writer, and has so much to say on this subject, that I asked him to submit a guest post to balance my crusty attitude toward expensive wines. He sent it in as a comment to my post of yesterday. I'm taking the liberty of elevating it here to a separate essay.

By Tom

The meal you prepared is tastier in the writing than it was at the table, or so it seems in hindsight. We could have feasted around those sausages and then sucked on the bones. The dog went mad on them last night.

Yes, I do take issue with wine snobbery. There is no such thing, in my view, only the realizing that life is too short to drink crappy wine. Any guest at your table should by now be worshipping your art. And since they don't possess the same culinary vision as you, by and large, the only way out of this conundrum is to tote fine wines to your table. Anything less than a fine Burgundy or Bordeaux seems an insult. Daring to present a twist cap Pinot at your table, that ubiquitous see-through candy water, reduces the guest to mere hanger-on status, a low life leech bag gimme scoudrel. Me, a snob? Nah.

Funny how wine is one of the few pursuits that assumes this snobbery status when so many other fine pursuits--literature,classical music, a fine autombile, a taste for French puff pastry--would never be relegated to the same ignominious label as snobbery. Could there be such a thing as a pork snob? A Thai food snob? A chocolate snob? No, this is nothing but a taste for the good things in life.

Wine need not assume such heightened stature. As you say, it has been imbibed for two millenia. Like anything else, its craft, art, terroir has suffered as much abuse as the beef burger, so all the more reason to keep the guests in line with thoughtful pairings, offerings that reflect less a price consciousness than a spark of educated preparation to pair something worthy of your fare.

Another irony here is that those most disposed to afford good wine, i.e, the rich, rarely have a clue what they should be pouring down their gullet. They are snobs on many levels, perhaps, but never when it comes to wine. In any case, thank you for yet another fine dining evening.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Bandol Tempier Meet Matanza Pig

The vineyards of Bandol in Southern France have been producing wines since Roman times. Normally I would have guessed a Pinot Noir to accompany our matanza pork roast. But my brother-in-law, Tom, Pinot skeptic and eonophile that he is, had selected a choice bottle of Bandol from the Tempier domaine near Toulon, on the Mediterranean coast of Provence, to accompany our loin roast.

Before I start sounding like Robert Parker, I want to stop right here and note that Tom, a librarian by profession, is a bit of what I would call a wine snob (sorry Tom). Since I have forsworn wine snobbery, and since I rarely spend more than $10 for a bottle of wine, this puts me in the category of someone who knows practically nothing about wine any more. I say any more because back in the day I did know quite a lot about California wines. That was when you could spend a week and stop at just about every vineyard in the state for a free tasting. Those days are just a wisp of memory. And while I have a rudimentary knowledge of French wines (I spent some of my student days there, so I know the pleasures of sitting in the lee of some plane trees with a hunk of pate, a baguette and a bottle of vin ordinaire), and while I have toured many times the caves at Pommery and have even taken part in the champagne grape harvest at risk of pneumonia, and while I have experienced a range of the German, Swiss and Austrian vintages, and while I have watched with some befuddlement the emergence of Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Spain and Italy as centers of wine refinement, I am basically a wine ignoramus.

All of which is simply another way to say that we are completely dependent on Tom for making wine choices to go with our food.

So after all the work I described in my earlier posts killing and butchering pigs at our friend's farm in Southern Maryland, last night was our first opportunity to taste the pork we brought home. I froze about half the haul we received for our help at the weekend matanza, or pig slaughter, two weeks ago. What I had sitting in the refrigerator was a bone-in pork loin roast of about five ribs and a bag of 10 Hungarian sausages. I also had about six pounds of homemade sauerkraut at the peek of ripeness, as well as a couple gallons of cream of cauliflower soup from the food classes I teach. So we invited my sister and her husband Tom, along with our friend Shelly and her husband John, to help us deal with all this food. Then our friend Darren called at the last minute and we invited him over as well. This is the menu I came up with:

Cream of Cauliflower Soup w/ Asiago Bread Croutons & Garlic Chives

Hungarian Sausage & Sauerkraut Braised w/ Onions & Apples

Pork Loin Roasted w/ Sage & Garlic; Parmesan Mashed Potatoes; Caramelized Brussels Sprouts w/ Tennessee Smoked Bacon

Creme Brulee

Tom brought a dry Alsatian Riesling for hors d'oeuvres, while I purchased an Alsatian Pinot Blanc to go with the soup. Tom said he really favors heavier wines these days over the Pinots that never quite measure up to his expectations any more. So we were saving the Bandol for the loin roast. A blend of Mourvedre, Grenache and Cinsault grapes, and with an alcohol content of 14 percent, the Bandol certainly is a powerhouse of a wine.

I've mentioned before probably a dozen times at least that supermarket pork simply does not measure up in my book. The pork industry years ago decided to cut the fat out its pork and sell the flesh from beasts raised in dismal, putrid confinement lots as "the other white meat." In the process, they completely eliminated the fat and flavor that many of us remember from the pork roasts of our childhood. You can recapture some of that flavor by seeking out Niman Ranch pork, a cooperative of farmers using more flavorful breeds and more hospitable living conditions for the pigs. Or you can look for a local source of pork.

I was incredibly curious how pork raised by our farmer friend Brett on his spread in Lexington Park--the same pork we had killed and butchered ourselves,--would look and taste on our dinner plates. The Hungarian sausages, with paprika and golden raisins, paired exquisitely with the braised sauerkraut. I was concerned that the sausage might prove overpowering, but the flavor was subtle. The loin roast exceeded all expectations. Unlike anything you would find at the grocery, it was streaked with fatty unctuousness and layers of dark and pale meat. I had stuffed the roast in several places with a mix of garlic, salt and sage that I pounded with a mortar and pestle. I had then browned the roast in an iron skillet before placing it in a 350 degree oven. So there were many complimentary flavors happening in that roast along with some very assertive flavors and a bit of gameyness that I had not expected. The sturdy Bandol wine matched it perfectly.

Shelly is a great storyteller. All you have to do to get her started is pour a Bombay Sapphire martini. She had just returned from a business trip to New Orleans, so we were all anxious to hear her impressions. Tom brought a half-bottle of Muscat for dessert. We drank it with my wife's famous creme brulee. That part is a bit or a blur for me. I remember going upstairs to read a bedtime story to our daughter. I remember reading very, very slowly. But then the lights go dim...

We have struggled with the idea of becoming full partners in the annual matanza because it would mean owning a 325-pound pig and storing the pork from that pig somewhere within the confines of our urban dwelling. But after last night's tasting, I'm starting to think that an investment in a large freezer chest might not be such a bad idea.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Curry-Roasted Cauliflower

I know, I just wrote about cauliflower. Or so it seems. But this treatment of cauliflower is so good I could not resist passing it on. I've been focused on cauliflower with my "food appreciation" classes at a private elementary school here in the District of Columbia. We made the cauliflower soup I described earlier. I usually do some baking with the older kids. Voila: curry-roasted cauliflower.

I consider it high praise whenever I get a thumbs up from someone who has not yet experienced puberty. The kids loved the cauliflower soup (well, most of them). And one of the 12-year-olds described the roasted cauliflower as "good as popcorn."

This is not so much a recipe as a treatment for cauliflower. There are only four ingredients, most of which you probably have already in your pantry. All you have to do is toss cauliflower florets with the seasonings and place them in a hot oven on a baking sheet. Within a half-hour or so, you will have the tastiest gold-brown florests you've ever experienced. And they do eat like popcorn. Serve them as a snack, or as a side dish, perhaps with the sweet-and-sour braised chicken I described in yesterday's post.

Serves Four

1 head cauliflower, washed and seperated into individual florets (if some of the florets are very large, cut them in half)

3 TBS extra-virgin olive oil

Curry powder to taste

Salt to taste

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees.

In a large bowl, toss the cauliflower florets with the olive oil. Sprinkle curry powder over the florets, tossing occasionally, until all of the florets are seasoned and fragrant. Season with salt.

Spread cauliflower florets on a baking sheet. Place in over and bake until florets are tender and lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Serve warm.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Braised Chicken: Tale of Two Titties

I swear, there should be a warning label on chicken breasts. First, they don't have any flavor. Secondly, they don't cook the same as the rest of the bird. But nobody wants to talk about it. The truth about chicken breasts constitutes one of the ugly secrets of the culinary world.

First, as to flavor: I defy anyone to show me where it is in the breast. Even on a free range bird (well, maybe a little flavor) the breast is not where it's at. The flavor is in what you put on the breast. So the breast really should be described as a flavorless vehicle for sauces. In the catering business, I stared into many a buffet platter looking at bland, flavorless chicken breast, wondering how many hours the chef spent trying to invent new things to put on it. Of course you can't serve anything but the breast at a large function. Someone might be offended by, say, a flavorful thigh. Too gamy, they might say. So, to play it safe, you serve chicken breast, neatly sliced and covered with a caper sauce, or a tomato salsa, or sauteed mushrooms.

Now think about it. In that last sentence, what made your mouth water? The chicken breast, or the caper sauce, the tomato salsa, the sauteed mushrooms?

Me, I am a thigh man. Legs don't appeal to me, primarily because of all that gristle and those tendons you have to chew around. Thighs are rich dark meat, full of juicy succulence. Sure, they have a few more calories than the breast. But if it's a choice between lots of flavor with a few extra calories, or no flavor and fewer calories, guess which way I'm headed?

Still, there are people who will eat nothing but breast meat. I pity them. I have one client for whom I made only thighs when I cooked chicken. Finally, he became so exasperated that he just blurted out one day that he DID NOT LIKE THIGHS! When I pointed out to him that breast meat has no flavor, he insisted, "Yes they do. If you cook them on the bone!"

Sorry. Bones do not add that much flavor to chicken breasts. Chicken breasts can only pray they have flavor in another life.

Now to the other matter of cooking times. I'm curious: If you turn to the duck cooking literature, the first thing out of the author's mouth is likely to be, Do not cook the breast meat and leg/thighs together. These different parts of the duck do not cook at the same rate. Breasts cook faster than dark meat. So, the thinking goes, if you try to cook a whole duck, the breasts will be dried out and inedible by the time the dark meat is cooked. Cook them separately, is the recommendation. Same thing with turkey. Anyone who's cooked more than one turkey knows the lengths you have to go to get the dark meat cooked without destroying the breasts. Some chefs do the same thing with turkeys they do with ducks: cook the breasts and the dark meat separately.

So why is this not the mantra with chickens? Why do we pay such scant attention to the different parts of this bird?

In fact, I have paid some attention. And like I said, I am now a thigh man. And I notice more and more recipes for thighs-only are popping up. One in particular I like is the recipe for thighs roasted with lemon, thyme and honey in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Another I'm especially fond of is my own interpretation of the "chicken Marbella" recipe that appeared years ago in The Silver Palate Cookbook. (Does anyone remember the Silver Palate series? It was all the rage back in the 80s.)

The original "chicken Marbella" called for four chickens to make 10 or more portions. But I use strictly thighs. Then I beef up the finished chicken by reducing the marinade until it is flavorful as all get out. You'll notice a North African influence in the sweet and sour mix of red wine vinegar and brown sugar (okay, maybe and Anglicized North African influence). The dried fruits and green olives may place this more in the fall/winter season. So quick! Make it before all the snow melts.
This recipe can be expanded to fit an even bigger crowd. In fact, I typically "roast/braise" the chicken on baking sheets for 30 or more people. After roasting in the oven, allow the thighs to cool, then pick the meat off the bones. Note: Start this dish two or three days in advance.
For 10 Servings
5 pounds chicken thighs
1 head garlic, peeled
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup dried oregano
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup pitted prunes
1/2 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup pitted green olives (choose Spanish or Moroccan olives)
1/2 cup capers with some juice
6 bay leaves
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white wine
1/4 cup coarsely chopped parsley or cilantro
Place chicken thighs in large mixing bowl. In a blender, mix garlic, vinegar and olive oil until smooth. Pour over chicken thighs. Season with oregano, salt and pepper. Mix in prunes, apricots, olives, capers and bay leaves. Cover with plastic and marinate overnight.
The following day, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread chicken thighs and marinade on baking sheet. Sprinkle with brown sugar. Pour white wine around chicken thighs. Place in oven and bake until chicken is golden and cooked through, about 45 minutes. Set aside to cool.
When chicken is cool enough to handle, remove meat from thighs and discard bones and bay leaves. Set olives, prunes and apricots aside. Meanwhile, separate fat from pan liquids. Either pour liquid into sauce pan and skim fat away using a spoon or turkey baster. If using a grease separator, strain liquid into separator saving solids for later. Discard fat. Place remaining liquid in small sauce pan. Bring to boil and cook until liquid is reduced by about 1/3. Return solids to pan.
To serve, ladle finished sauce along with olives, prunes and apricots over chicken. I like to accompany this dish with a brown basmati rice pilaf tossed with toasted almonds and parsley. Since there are no onions in the chicken, you can dice some red onion and put it in the pilaf.
Now tell me you can do anything with a chicken breast that tastes this good.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Compost: Making the Sale

I love talking to groups about compost and last night I did my schtick in front of the Capitol Hill Garden Club. Who, you ask, gardens on Capitol Hill? This club, you should know, is one of the largest in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Many of the members have been gardening for 30 years or more. And I got a very warm welcome.

I had less than an hour, so this was not the kind of venue where you can do a hands-on composting demonstration. Over the months (they invited me to speak last summer) I worked on a Powerpoint-slide show that would give the what and the why of composting. It's a fascinating story, how humans for thousands of years were spreading compost and manure (the Greeks talk about making compost heaps) on their crops. Darwin was convinced that earth worms ruled the world (or at least the underworld). But then in the 19th century German scientists started pushing for an industrial process that would turn gaseous nitrogen into something that could be spread on farm crops to feed an exploding human population. It's only within the last few generations that we have come to believe that fertility is something we buy in the form of turquoise pellets, and that composting is only for hippies and tree huggers.

The sad truth is that chemical fertilizers are ruining our soils and choking our waterways. People are receptive to composting and gardening "naturally" or "organically." But especially in urban areas, they aren't sure how to make compost without investing tons of money in manufactured bins. There are rodent issues, neighbors to consider. It's a very thorny problem, and I'm just starting to get a grip on all the details. But that's what we need to be doing, especially in our cities: figuring out how we can recycle all that stuff we normally send to the landfill, or put at the curb in plastic bags.

On a more amusing note, I did a little hobnobbing with some community gardeners last week, courtesy of our local department of the environment. An environmental specialist is meeting with community gardeners to talk about Integrated Pest Management, or how to deal with unwanted bugs and plant diseases without using pesticides. Except the environmental specialist is not really a gardener. So I was told to expect questions. Sure enough, everyone wanted to know how to deal with cucumber beetles. They weren't very receptive to the idea of planting something other than cucumbers if they have a recurring infestation of cucumber beetles.

Somehow, we need to get the idea across that there isn't an organic spray to replace every chemical spray. Organic is a holistic approach that requires plant diversity, opening you mind to the needs of the environment, providing food and nesting places for wildlife, choosing the appropriate plants for local conditions, thinking globally instead of where can I get my hands on a good spray.
After my presentation last night, an elderly woman on crutches approached me to make this observation: "I started gardening 35 years ago and I had the worst soil. So I just took my leaves and spread them around the garden. I've been doing that every year, just spreading the leaves around. And you know what? I've got the most wonderful soil you've ever seen."
Go on with your bad leaf mulching self, girl.

To be continued...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Spring Planting

Where does food come from? It comes from the ground, of course. And prior to that, it arrives on earth in the form of sunshine. Thanks to photosynthesis, we have food to eat, because plants have the unique ability to turn sunshine into carbohydrates, providing calories for us and for other animals (some of which we eat as well). But plants wouldn't be much without soil. And with the arrival of Spring (last frost around here is April 10), I'm on my knees, getting my hands dirty. And because we would not eat were it not for soil, I feel perfectly justified writing about it in a food blog.

Today I planted 15 different varieties of lettuce along with some parsley, cilantro, radishes and a new variety of kale for me, Lacinato. All this in just one corner of our yard here in the District of Columbia, about a mile from the White House. Here you see my stirrup hoe, which I use to dig up weeds and turn the soil a bit, and a bucket for collecting all the waste. The weeds all get dumped in the compost pile, where they can do some good later as fertilizer and soil conditioner.

I started planting in our front yard three years ago. This was under threat of eviction from my more far-thinking spouse, who has great plans to turn the yard into a magnificent garden, compatible with our Victorian-era house. But the big plans so far have given way to the smaller plans. The actual plans, I might add, have still to be drawn up, although my wife has a general idea where she wants things. (This translates as, "Don't you dare put a vegetable bed there! That's where the walkway is going!") She has wavered, for instance, on just what kind of dust-inhibiting shrub to plant around the perimiter as a hedge. And now I think we share the same view that our new garden, as far as possible, should be edible.

While the master plan inches along, and while my wife continues to threaten that a crew will be here any day to install a retaining wall, I continue digging and planting. A quick survey shows that a few lettuces along with some arugula, kale and collards survived a bitterly cold February. And the garlic I planted last fall is doing fine. I am gradually improving my knowledge of what to plant where, based on past successes. So this year I am starting with plenty of lettuces. I won't be over-fertilizing (with compost) the radishes and carrots: the extra nitrogen results in too much foliage and funny-shaped carrots. I am finding some shadier spots for the parsley and especially the cilantro. And I will work my way across the yard, preparing the beds, making more compost. This will space out my planting so that everything doesn't come up at once. You don't want a crop of lettuce so big you can't eat it. But I also will be serving it to my catering clients, and selling it at the small produce market we operate in front of my daughter's charter school on Saturday mornings. We use money from vegetables to buy more seeds for the school garden.

I will continue to update you on our urban garden. Chefs should be gardeners. Because gardens provide our food. I don't know how you can separate cooking from growing. And now that we know how much our food supply contributes to our environmental problems, we should all be gardeners/cooks/environmentalists.
Here's the garlic. Hard tomake out. It looks much better in person.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Grating Potatoes

I've been on a potato jag lately at the elementary school where I teach kids "food appreciation." Last week, to go with sausages and the sauerkraut we put up in December, we made potato pancakes. But the older kids kept wanting to make them more like the latkes gradma makes, and rejected the idea of adding baking powder. My revenge was to make them peel and grate potatoes a second week. Surprise: the latkes were better than my plain old potato pancakes.

Latkes traditionally are served during Hanukka. But they are also a fun snack to make with kids, especially when served with sour cream and apple sauce. Kids love to operate a peeler and grater and this is a good place to start with kitchen safety. This week I had one 5-year-old boy nick his thumb on the grater. He was utterly mortified and weepy. It took him a half hour to recover.

The appeal of latkes is in the crispy outside, soft potato inside and mild bite of onion, all intensified with a little salt seasoning. Preparation time is quick, but you will need to get one heavy frying pan greasy.

For 12 Latkes

3 medium Russet or Yukon Gold potatoes

1 medium yellow onion

1 large egg, beaten

2 Tbs all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

canola oil

Peel and grate potatoes into a large bowl. Peel and grate onion into potatoes. Transfer potatoes and onions to a colander and, over a sink, press as much liquid out of them as possible. Return potatoes and onions to bowl. Add egg, flour, salt and pepper and mix well.

Meanwhile, pour oil into heavy skillet to a depth of about 1/4 inch. Heat over moderately-high heat until oil is shimmering. Carefully slide spoonfuls of mixture into the oil, flattening with a spoon or spatula. Cook on each side until browned and crispy. Drain on paper towels, then serve warm with applesauce and sour cream.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

"Matanza" to Appear in Edible Chesapeake

For everyone who found my three postings on the pork matanza too wordy, take heart. A breezier version is scheduled to appear in the spring edition of the re-invigorated Edible Chesapeake magazine.

If you are familiar with Edible Chesapeake, you are already aware that the magazine is part of a group of "Edibles" around the country, including San Francisco, The Twin Cities, Coastal Maine and Brooklyn, to name a few. (Brooklyn? That's what I said: gimme some of that Brooklyn ethnic food, baby.)

The magazine covers the local food scene in depth, with lots of gorgeous photos, some of which you can sample by going to the mag's website at The Chesapeake version of Edible had lapsed. But it has a new publisher and editor, Renee Brooks Catacalos. Catacalos also is co-author of Local Mix, a biweekly newsletter about local food in the Maryland-DC region, and co-publisher of, a website that focuses on local food sources.

A mutual friend, Prince George's County farmer Mike Klein, put Renee and myself together. Mike helps run the Maryland Organic Food and Farming Association and is the source of some mighty good asparagus as well as a summer CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription. (Note: he's the guy behind the turkeys pictured on the front of this blog. You can check out his stuff at

Edible Chesapeake is a quarterly publication. Annual subscriptions are $28. This is where you will find out what's really going on with local food in our region. Go ahead, people. Be readers. Support our local food producers.

Shhh. Whole Foods May Be Listening

Some of you may remember my little dust-up with a clerk in the bulk section at Whole Foods over steel cut oats. What it boiled down to was, the label on the bin said "steel cut oat groats," but what was inside the bin was actually whole oats. Since whole oats was not what I wanted to make my oatmeal out of, and since the clerk was not budging on my request to either put the steel cut oats where they belong or change the label on the bin, I had to find a manager to intervene. (This after the clerk accused me of spitting on him. Is this what happens when you approach AARP age?)

Well, everything turned out all right in the end. I returned a few days later to find steel cut oats back on display. The clerk and I kissed and made up (it was a dry kiss, I assure you.) The only hitch was, the label on the steel cut oats now said, simply, "oat groats." No big deal, right? I could live with that.

I thought the whole thing was amusing enough to pass along to Whole Foods HQ (and maybe pick up some new readers). They have a handy feature for leaving messages on the corporate website. It even allows you to specify the store in question by selecting from a long pop-up list. Well, I never thought anything would come of it. I never heard back from Whole Foods. But guess what? I was strolling through the bulk section the other day looking for my favorite brown basmati rice and what did I see? Someone had taken a big black marker, struck through where it said "oat groats" and written in "steel cut oats."

I swear, I have never seen anything like that done before in the bulk section. And all I have to say is, More power to the blog!

Oh, and thanks, Whole Foods, for getting that straight. Now, will you ever be bringing back the whole wheat couscous?

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Stuffing Sausage: Matanza Day 2

By the second day of the matanza, the crew is showing signs of wear. Children are over-excited and sleep deprived. We missed much of the festivities the night before when our own daughter melted down for lack of sleep. Fireworks were canceled because of high winds. Some of the crew are feeling the effects of too much merry making.

The good news: we are way ahead of schedule. Six pigs have all been killed and butchered. Most of the meat has been carved. What remains is to package and organize the finer cuts, and turn the rest into sausages.

In past years, this was no easy chore. The group was using the most rudimentary of equipment. All of the sausage meat, for instance, was ground in a small Cuisinart in the farmhouse kitchen. "We had to throw bags of ice on the Cuisinart to cool it down," said Christine Bergmark.

One of the matanza participants, Bob Feldhaus, has solved that problem. Feldhaus operates a pet store in nearby Leonardtown with friend Ronnie Frederick. Both are frequent visitors to the farm to help process venison. They are avid sausage makers. This year Feldhaus has purchased a commercial-grade meat grinder and a Cabela brand sausage extruder that holds several gallons of meat.

Most of the "volunteer" help has departed. Now it is down to the matanza shareholders: Brett and Chris, Bobby and Ronnie and Rusty and Karen, two former neighbors from a time when the farmer-wife team lived in Arlington. For some reason, the men gravitate toward the heavy equipment, while the women begin vacuum packing and sorting the meat. I have cleaned the bathtub in the walk-in refrigerator. Now the hams and bacon slabs are curing under layers of kosher salt. I join Bobby at the sausage making station.

There has been extensive chatter and deliberation over what kind of sausages to make and which recipes to use. One of the sources the group relies on is Great Sausage Recipes and Meat Curing by a fellow named Rytek Kutas. Kutas, a man of simple tastes and straightforward opinions, advocates a husband and wife team for making "up to 100 pounds" of sausage a day. His recipes call for quantities no smaller than 25 pounds of meat.

This year the matanza group has decided on 7 different types of susage: Kielbasa, Italian, Sicilian, Hungarian, chorizo, breakfast patties and a "mystery" blend. Actually, two kinds of chorizo sausage emerged when one faction declared that the recipe did not have enough heat. The mix was split in half and some of Brett's incendiary homemade Tabasco sauce, along with red pepper flakes, were added to jack up the heat quotient.

To season the sausages, Bobby has brought bags of spices mail-ordered from Detroit: fennel, marjoram, paprika. After the meat has been pressed through the grinder, and after the seasonings are added, Rusty, a carpenter by trade, itches to apply his half-inch drill. The drill holds a three-foot-long mixing tool that makes child's play out of blending the meat and spices in a large plastic tub.

From there, the meat makes its way to Bobby's big Cabela extruder. Bobby's hands are practically numb from handling the cold meat. Wearing a pair of bright blue, neoprene gloves, I pitch in to keep the extruder loaded. Bobby slips a sausage casing onto the extruder. As he pulls down on the extruder's handle, the meat is forced into the casings forming one long, long sausage. I guide the finished sausage to prevent any tangles or pile-ups. As the hours pass, we cover several plastic-lined tabletops with the different varieties of sausages, about 300 pounds in all. They are laid out in long coils to dry. Later, we will twist the sausages into smaller links before cutting them into lots of five and vacuum packing them for distribution to the matanza members.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, chef Jeffrey Heineman is hunched over a small Cuisinart, making filling for his jumbo hot dogs. The meat for hot dogs must be finely ground and emulsified. Once in their casings, the dogs are then poached slowly in a water bath in the oven.

The work, the cold, the long cocktail hours--all are taking a toll. I yearn for a nap. It's just about this point that Brett taps me to join him in one of his two greenhouses to "pick bones." The bones from the butchering operation had been placed in a huge kettle and simmered the day before. Now we get to pull a couple of milk crates up to the kettle, sit in the warmth of the greenhouse and sort through the bones for bits of meat that can be used in sauces and possibly scrapple.

I am happy to pass an hour with Brett this way, sitting and picking. We talk about the business of farming. We gab about the huge rains that fell last June, about tomato blight, the fungus that killed my squashes, planting seeds early, and whether my collards will come back from last month's snow and ice storm.

For lunch, I return to the house and help my wife prepare a platter of fresh hot dogs wrapped in baguettes. Chef Heineman has not used any nitrates in the meat, so the dogs, pink at first, look more like weisswurst--a pale greyish tan--once they are cooked. But the flavor is still there. We savor them with mustard and chopped onion and a cup of beer from Brett's keg.

When it is finally time to go, Brett points to a large cardboard box containing our reward for helping: two large, bone-in loin roasts, a slab of ribs, two pint-sized bags of breakfast sausage and an assortment of sausage links. Not a bad haul. Thanks, Brett and Christine. We had a great time.

Monday, March 5, 2007

How to Skin a Pig

I find nothing repulsive about butchering an animal. Where others see gore, I see the miracle of evolution. The innards of a pig are utterly pristine. To me this came as a revelation. It does not matter how many of the animals you slice open: on the inside, each is identical to the one before it, a marvel of genetics and mammalian engineering. The organs glisten. They are squeaky clean--the liver crimson against the steely grey of the intestines; the kidneys perfectly ovoid and efficient; the heart a mighty muscle, a compact little machine.

During the first full day of the matanza, or pig slaughter, we will kill and gut six pigs. As we work around the viscera, the first order of business is to tie off the colon, to avoid any contamination of the animal's cavity. Then these few organs--liver, kidneys, heart--we seek out and keep. The rest becomes feed for the chickens. We wrestle an empty carcass into position and hoist it off the ground with rope and pulley for skinning. Four of the original six pigs will be handled in this manner, skinned and broken down into pieces. Two others, being white pigmented, are immersed in a hot water bath, a giant metal drum filled with water heated from a fire pit underneath. These two pigs are then scraped to remove all hairs, revealing a smooth skin that will crisp up nicely around the succulent hams.

By mid-morning there are 13 adults working at various phases of the pork production. I am already weary. My day began at 3:30 am, when anticipation shook me awake in our motel room. We had agreed to serve breakfast and lunch for the workers. We made the meals ahead, so they only needed to be reheated and displayed on platters. We'd been told the men-folk would be up at the crack of dawn. It was still dark when we arrived at the farm, where farmer Brett Grohsgal, greeted us with a flashlight and guided us into the house. We started coffee. We heated the oven. We checked the menu: My wife's special strata of Panettone and Challah breads with pancetta, rosemary and Gorgonzola cheese; Tennessee smoked bacon and chicken-apple sausages; scones with dried fruit and lavender-vanilla sugar; chocolate chip banana bread; tropical fruit salad. There was food for a crowd.

One by one the shareholders in the pig operation wandered into the kitchen. The house was utterly full.

"Having a lot of people over is my favorite part of the matanza," says Christine Bergmark, the second half of the farm team. "Most years we have someone sleeping on the couch."
The matanza is into its eighth year. It started when Bergmark was trying to figure a way to deal with all the leftover tomatoes at the end of the season, the ones that weren't good enough to send to market. The tomatoes were being thrown back into the fields to rot. Bergmark thought a farm animal might take care of the tomatoes.

"I thought maybe we should get a pig," Bergmark said. "Brett went out to get a pig. He came back with five."

"They get lonely," Grohsgal explains sheepishly.

They tried raising other animals for the matanza: goats, sheep. But goats and sheep find a way to break out of their enclosures, and then they are in the fields eating Grohsgal's prized greens.

"They were eating my collards!" he declares. "You can eat my arugula, but don't mess with my collards. That sealed their fate."

No more goats and sheep.

These days there are six pigs, making plenty of work at killing time. And most years the weather is much more of a factor. The slaughter usually takes place in January, sometimes in bitter cold. But this year the sow was not impregnated on the first attempt. The pigs are a mixed breed adapted to local conditions. Weeks passed before the sow was ready to mate again, which pushed the matanza into March. Not so bad if you like warmer temperatures, and a little more daylight on either end of the workday.

Inside the barn, things are humming. Besides the skinning operation, there are several stations where workers are carving big hunks of pork, cutting and sawing loins into manageable pieces, separating choice cuts from sausage meat, trimming slabs of bacon from the bellies. Inside the walk-in refrigerator, a bathtub is filling fast with hams, shoulders and rib sections.

My job, it turns out, is official Cleaner and Sharpener of Knives. I am constantly running back to the house to the only source of hot, soapy water. I wash the knives, then give the blades a quick tune-up on the Chef's Choice grinder. There are lots and lots of knives. Knives of every size and description. My personal favorites are the ancient carbon steel chefs knives, of which Grohsgal seems to be a collector. They sharpen to a mean edge. Before the day is out, I am using one of them to separate pig heads from pig skins, then trimming the bristly skin off the jowls so they can be cured for guanciale, a bacon-like specialty.

Chef Jeffrey Heineman, one of the shareholders, will turn the pork cheeks and tongues into incredible braises. And that will be my last memory of the day: dinner of tongue and cheek, a bottle of red wine, a piece of bread. Call it a night. I'm done.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's exciting conclusion...