Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dairy Delivered

When I was growing up, we had an insulated metal box outside the side door to the kitchen. This is where the milkman left our regular delivery of milk and eggs and butter and such.


Does that make me an antique? Many of you may be too young to remember the milk man. He arrived in a big, white step-up truck, wore a uniform with a hat and carried the milk in a kind of metal basket that had little nests for the glass bottles. When we finished a bottle, we'd clean it out and put it back in the metal box for the milkman to take on his next delivery.


That, in the old days, was how you got your milk. This was before bovine growth hormones, before cows were routinely injected with antibiotics to stave off the diseases that arise when animals are jammed together too long indoors, before genetically engineered corn. All that changed with the advent of industrial agriculture. Most consumers have no idea anymore what's in their milk or how the cows have been raised. And milk became something you had to buy at the grocery store.


Well, this week we stepped back into the future. We recently learned that a certain dairy in Frederick County, Maryland, was making deliveries to the District of Columbia. We took a look at the company's web site, liked what we saw, and signed up for a weekly allotment. We took our first delivery yesterday: glass bottles of milk, half-and-half and raspberry smoothie, tubs of unsalted butter and a dozen eggs.


Prices are comparable to what we pay at the local Whole Foods: $2.25 for a quart of 2 percent milk, $4 for a quart of half-and-half, $3.50 for a quart container of smoothie, $3 for a dozen eggs and $4.75 for a pound of butter. Delivery is $3.50. This would be our standing weekly order (unless we change it), but you can add any of a number of different items, including cuts of pork, beef, lamb, turkey, chicken as well as cheese, yogurt, bread, jams, honey and even prepared meals.


The name of the dairy is South Mountain Creamery, apparently the only dairy in Maryland that processes milk products on site. I learned about it when I began looking for places where I could photograph a commercial yogurt operation for the food classes I teach. The more we looked, the more we liked the idea of supporting a local dairy that makes deliveries.



South Mountain is a family operation that started in 1981 on rented land. They now own the land and have several employees. They don't claim to be "organic"--I'm not sure exactly why--but insist that their products are made "naturally" without bovine growth hormones or antibiotics. The cows get a choice of feed mix in the barn or grass in the open pasture. "What the cows are fed here, is raised here. " Their beef cattle, according to the company website, are grass fed.


Cheeses and yogurts are made on the premises, but pork, chicken, turkey and lamb are grown elsewhere, some locally, the chickens purchased from a farm in New York State.


"We had a tough time finding a local person to raise and process chickens, so we had to go and find someone who meet our high standards," according to the website.


The farm is always open to the public for visits. Visitors can watch the cows being milked in the afternoon, or help bottle feed baby calves. Every so often customers are invited to the farm for a festival of barbecue, hayrides and family entertainment. What's not to like?


South Mountain Creamery is located in Middletown, MD, 60 miles from our home. Gas prices being what they are, I worry what the effect will be on a local dairy trying to maintain its delivery base of some 2,200 customers. But as Humphrey Bogart once famously said to Claude Raines, we are hoping this is the beginning of a wonderful friendship.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Viva el Cubano!

They say you can't get an authentic Cubano sandwich outside Miami and I tend to believe it. Ingredients can be extremely local. I can't image a true lobster roll, for instance, without a top-cut bun, and top-cut buns aren't available outside certain areas of New England.

Still, we continuously try to duplicate the flavors, the smells, the textures we love--or at least imagine we are doing so. I say, if you love a good Cubano sandwich and the only thing standing in your way is an authentic Cuban roll, close your eyes and wrap your gums around the best roll you can find.

A Cubano is an odd combination. You would never think of a Cuban slapping together a soft roll, yellow mustard, roast pork, dill pickles, ham and Swiss cheese and calling it a taste of the home country. The truth is, the Cubano is 100 percent American, a product of South Florida. What makes it really local is the Cuban bread it is made on, which traditionally contains lard (so they say). After that, what separates the Cubano from the ordinary submarine sandwich is the fact that is pressed--hard and long--in a plancha, or sandwich press, that melts the cheese with the meat and pickles.

If you don't have any Cuban bread on hand, find yourself a soft submarine-type roll. Cut the roll in half lengthwise. Smear one of the inside halves with mustard (yellow or Dijon) and cover the other half with slices of Swiss cheese. Over the mustard lay slices of a full-flavored, deli-style ham, such as Black Forest ham. Over the cheese lay a mound of pulled pork, or slices of roast pork. (We used slices of loin I had spit roasted with some hickory chips last Thursday--the flavor was intense).

Fold the sandwich together. Butter the outside of the roll. Press it hard and for a good long while in your sandwich press until the roll is lightly browned and the cheese is oozing.

What's that? You say you don't have a sandwich press? Well, maybe you do and you just don't know it. Place a large, heavy skillet over moderately low heat. When it comes up to temperature, lay your sandwiches in there. Now take a second, smaller heavy skillet. Lay it on top of the sandwiches and fill it up with canned goods, as many as you can fit. Press down on the sandwiches and let them cook. That is your sandwich press.

Listen for cheese sizzling in the skillet. That is your cue to remove the flattened sandwiches, slice them in two and serve with some tangy cole slaw and a cold beer.

It will make you want to shout, Viva el Cubano!

Bottom photo--pickles on the side--by daughter

Monday, April 28, 2008

Spring Cuisine with the Historical Society

Recently the garden group I work with-- D.C. Urban Gardeners--received a totally unexpected e-mail. It seems the Historical Society of D.C. was looking for someone to put together a series of practical garden talks. They'd first contacted the U.S. Botanical Gardens and--surprise, surprise--the Botanical Gardens had recommended us.

We were thrilled and flattered. There was just one little bitty problem. The Historical Society wanted the talks to start NOW, as in, How about next month? My cohort Susan Harris and I quick put our heads together to create a rough outline for the series. But as far as giving the rapidly approaching first lecture, there was only one thing to do: I volunteered to whip together some kind of Powerpoint show.

I have to admit, I'm a bit of a ham. I like speaking in public. It's fun. Occasionally I give talks about composting. The last time I put on a show in a formal setting was for the Smithsonian Associates, where I performed before a packed house on the subject of "Catering Your Own Dinner Party." (It was a huge success, and I had a blast doing it.)

As to the question of what to talk about at the Historical Society, the basic guideline was that it needed to include something practical, something the audience could take home with them and use. Two things I know something about are growing food and cooking it. So that became the program, a seasonal look at what's growing in an urban kitchen garden one mile from the White House and how to turn it into delicious spring cuisine.

Asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries, lettuces, greens, fava beans, peas--I covered pretty much all the bases, with something about how to plant and grow the crops (think root crowns and lots of organic matter for asparagus), to a little history (did you know the dried root of rhubarb was a highly prized medicinal "purgative" for centuries before people discovered you could make pies out of the stalks?), to actual cooking methods and recipes (getting the fava beans out of their tough casings is definitely worth the effort).

Many of the recipes, I'm not at all ashamed to admit, were lifted from this blog: asparagus frittata, rhubarb tea cakes, classic strawberry shortcake, salad of spicy greens. I even talked a little about foraging for edible plants such as chickweed, dandelions and ramps with a recipe for the dandelion wine now fermenting in my pantry. (I'm thinking dandelion mimosas for our next Urban Gardeners meeting.)

So when the big day arrived on Saturday, I was psyched. I packed up my laptop and my Powerpoint show and headed off for the Historical Society's incredible digs at the old Carnegie Library building downtown. They have a high-tech auditorium with a huge screen and seats for almost 150. I stood by the front door, soaking in an expansive view south to the newly renovated Portrait Gallery and waiting for the eager hordes to show.

I waited. And waited. Finally, we started the program about 15 minutes later than scheduled. There may have been 10 people in the audience. I felt silly standing at a podium, so I grabbed the mike and basically kicked off my shoes. It was a lovely time, although a bit more intimate than what I'd been expecting.

So it's back to that dratted publicity issue. The Historical Society had placed an ad somewhere in the Washington Post as well as the Washington City Paper, but we need to get more creative with this public relations thing. Susan's talk on sustainable gardening is coming up May 17, so there's no time to lose.

Note: Susan Harris is not only a co-founder of D.C. Urban Gardeners and our webmaster, but famously is one of the co-authors of the Garden Rant blog and writes so many other blogs it's hard to keep track. She blogs about sustainable gardening and maintains a website loaded with information about how to garden naturally and with kindness toward the environment.

If you plan to be anywhere near the District of Columbia on May 17, save the date. Susan's talk promises to be a barn burner. You can reserve a seat at RSVP@historydc.org, or by calling 202 383-1828.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Weekend Update

I got a phone call from an exasperated spouse yesterday afternoon. "We're waiting in line to recycle. It's a total mess!" she complained.

Turns out she wasn't the only one. About three times the expected crowd turned out with their electronics devices and other hazardous wastes for the annual municipal pickup at Carter Baron Amphitheater here in the District of Columbia.

City officials were totally unprepared for the crowds. There were long waits, with car engines idling--rather counterproductive, don't you think? Main roads around the area became parking lots. People ditched their cars and came back wheeling television sets in shopping carts.

The District of Columbia, your nation's capitol, just isn't quite ready for the green revolution. Some surrounding jurisdictions allow hazardous waste disposal on a daily basis. But here in D.C. it's a once-a-year event, widely touted in the local media and on neighborhood listservs.

Another sign of just how far we have to go: It's dandelion season, and while many garden experts in the area are suggesting people learn to love these edible weeds, the extension service for the District of Columbia, operating out of our own land grant university, was advocating a scorched earth toxic dousing of lawns, courtesy of one of the local weathermen.

Sometimes living in the most powerful city in the world requires more than the usual amount of patience....

*****

Hands-down winner as Washington's longest running horror show is not Hillary and Obama but the congressional antics surrounding the farm bill. You're sick of hearing about it, right? Well, there was great hope that this multi-billion-dollar piece of legislation might actually tackle food issues, but the longer it gets haggled over, the more money goes right back into those crop subsidy programs.

Now we learn that while kids are wanting for fresh foods in their school lunches, and while the pantries at the nation's food banks are going bare, nearly $500 million in tax breaks is being set aside for thoroughbred horse breeders. This particular boondoggle is being called the "Equine Equity Act" and is being pushed by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Senate Minority Leader Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

While you have a picture of this big, wet kiss to rich horse breeders firmly in your mind, I'd like you to consider another priority of our federal government: slashing funds to the U.S. National Arboretum.

The arboretum, all 446 acres, is a place where hundreds of thousands of visitors each year find a rare bit of peace and tranquility amid the hustle and bustle of the city. Because I work as a volunteer in a food plot in the Washington Youth Garden, located inside the arboretum, I have a soft spot for this urban jewel of a refuge.

But apparently the bosses at the U.S. Department of Agriculture--lords of the farm bill as well--have found it necessary to cut a measly $2 million out of the arboretum's budget. Doesn't seem like much. Heck, that's chump change for horse breeders. But it would mean a 60 percent blowout to the arboretum's programs, cutting staff, closing to visitors--perhaps ruin for some of the facility's famous gardens and tree displays.

How's that for government priorities?

*****

It's hard to count the number of ways that turning food crops into fuel for automobiles is a bad idea. Taking food out of the mouths of people to run our easy motoring lifestyle has become a major factor in food riots and destabilizing third-world governments. But there are recent studies as well showing that the supposed environmental benefits from this scheme are largely a hoax. The growing of the crops releases so much carbon into the atmosphere that any savings from the fuel are quickly wiped out. (And did we mention how waterways are fouled from all the fertilizers used to grow the fuel crops?)

Now comes a certain Texan who's devoted his life to promoting sustainable ranching in the Amazon basin. But when he flies his little Cessna over that vast carbon storehouse, what John Carter sees is the forests and jungles rapidly disappearing as men use bulldozers and chains to convert rain forest into cattle pastures and soybean fields. He sees fires wiping out such gigantic swaths of jungle that scientists now debate the "savannization" of the Amazon.

"You can't protect it. There's too much money to be made tearing it down," says Carter. "Out here on the frontier, you really see the market at work....It's like witnessing a rape."

Just a continent a way, the Norwegians also are getting in on the act. But their methods hark back to the colonial days of the 19th century. They've found ways of hoodwinking African chiefs into selling huge tracts of land for a mere pittance.

The project was unearthed when officials found a huge swatch of forest in Ghana being torn down. After making inquiries, they learned that a subsidiary of the Norwegian biofuels company--Bio Fuels Norway--had laid claim to the land and was already busy creating "the largest jatropha plantation in the world." (Jatropha is a small tree with seeds that produce an oil that can be converted into biodiesel.)

According to the African Biodiversity Network, African land grabs are widespread, and usually involve invalid contracts with local leaders executed under the table with all kinds of promises of lucre and influence but without government scrutiny.

Meanwhile, you probably never expected biofuels to raise gender issues. But a United Nation's report warns that women could be the big losers in areas where croplands are given over to biofuel production.

"Unless policies are adopted in developing countries to strengthen the participation of small farmers, especially women in biofuel production by increasing their access to land, capital and technology - gender inequalities are likely to become more marked and women's vulnerability to hunger and poverty further exacerbated," according to the report. "Biofuel production certainly offers opportunities for farmers , but they will only trickle down to the farm level, especially to women, if pro-poor policies are put in place that also empower women."

Ladies, does that burn your wick at all?

*****

On a brighter note, we were happy to see the Wall Street Journal report recently on suburbanites turning their small plots into farms. Or rather, there's a business to be made bundling suburban yards into food-producing conglomerates. (Sorry, the WSJ does not let us link for free.)

The suburban food movement may come just in time to start providing fresh produce to local schools. In Maryland, lawmakers have embraced the idea and Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is ready to sign legislation that would at least expose kids to local farms and even mount posters of local farmers in the lunchroom.

Turns out actually getting the produce onto kids' plates is a bit tougher. Schools are bound by USDA guidelines that sometimes leave them with only 90 cents per meal to spend on food. Bidding laws mean schools often aren't allowed to spend more on produce grown locally.

In addition, many schools no longer have facilities for preparing foods. "The food services in most schools aren't usually prepared to deal with whole foods. They want something that's at least partially prepared and ready to pop in the oven," said Janet Bachmann of the Arkansas-based National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, a USDA-funded agency that promotes local foods in schools.

*****

Finally, adults take note: problems getting decent food in schools has really ticked some kids off.

In Westby, Wisconsin, middle schoolers are boycotting the school lunchroom over the quality of food service. Complaints range from running out of food, undercooked and overcooked food, soft or bruised fruit, portion sizes, overcharging of food items, "foreign items" found in the food, general appearance of some foods and the temperature at which food is served. Students also would rather not use plastic silverware, thank you very much.

“We normally have 245-260 students eating at noon, now we’re in the 40s. This is a major issue,” Westby Middle School Principal Clarice Nestingen told school board members recently.

Schools officials have met with the students and with parents, but the kids aren't budging. In fact, the boycott has spread to 5th- and 6th-graders.

Officials complain that they are already locked into contracts for the food the students have rejected and there's no money to switch to something more appetizing.

We say, Right on kids! And if all else fails, we'll teach you how to make your own!

Bon appetit....

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Breakfast: Greens Squared

You knew it was coming, didn't you?

The mustard greens we braised on Thursday are even better two days later. Turns out my 8 1/2-inch square baking pan makes nine portions of lasagna with rutabaga greens. So this morning, I am looking at greens every which way.

And the best part may be, these were all planted last fall and they're still feeding us. Let's hear it for overwintered vegetables!

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Shopping: none

A here's the kicker: there's more where that came from.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Mustard Greens Just in Time

We had a party of seven drop in for dinner last night. Fortunately, they brought their own park roast. We cleaned the potatoes out of the pantry, tossed together a salad with croutons and I happened to remember there was a bed of mustard greens about to go to seed out in the garden.

This is red mustard--one of my favorite varieties, with striking color and deeply veined leaves--and if you can believe it, it was planted last September 13. It overwintered beautifully and has done nothing but grow bigger and more vibrant these last few months, making a striking display in the garden and adding its peppery flavor to an occasional salad.

But as mustards and their kin are wont to do, they will begin elongating along the stems when the time comes in preparation for making seeds. When that happens, they are done and it is time to eat them or get ready to watch them flower. I have picked the leaves off flowering mustards. They are not bad, but the flavor and texture begins to go south.

So as guests arrived I was bent over the mustard bed, yanking plants out of the ground, shaking off the dirt, clipping off the roots with a pair of scissors. I dumped the whole lot--about three gallons, I think--in the kitchen sink and filled it with cold water. Then I cut up an onion and began sauteing it with some extra-virgin olive oil in our biggest iron skillet.

Shake some of the water off the greens and roughly chop them. It doesn't matter if you include some stem. When the onion softens, begin adding greens to the skillet and season them with salt. They will make quite a pile, so I would add some, then return to my chopping and add some more, turning them with the onions as they cooked down, seasoning with more olive oil, some cider vinegar and salt as needed.


When all of the greens are in the skillet, they will be braising and steaming in the water they brought with them from the sink. Place a lid over the skillet for a few minutes to hasten the cooking. Then remove the lid and let some of the liquid cook off.

When the greens are perfectly tender, taste for salt and add some balsamic vinegar. We pulled out our best balsamic for this--30 years old, syrupy and sweet, a lovely contrast with the mild bite of the greens. Drizzle the greens with more olive oil to make them smile.

I'm sure there are other ways to cook greens. But this one is simple and surely will remind you how good they can taste, a gift from last year.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Lasagna with Rutabaga Greens

When I recently harvested the rutabaga that had overwintered in the garden I faced a terrible dilemma: What to do with the greens?

I hate to throw away any kind of food and I just assumed the green leafy parts of the rutabaga would be tough and bitter. But a funny thing happened on the way to the compost pile. I tasted one of the leaves and was bowled over by how tender and mild it was.

Could it be that I was looking at a meal of rutabaga greens, planted seven months earlier?

I cooked the greens in the usual manner in boiling salted water. There were a lot of greens. One batch I left plain. For another, I seasoned the water with cider vinegar. I tried to think of some ingenious use for these greens. And then I remembered a comment from Charlotte over on the Great Big Vegetable Challenge blog in response to my butternut squash lasagna. She had liked that lasagna so much, she wondered if there were any other vegetables that might benefit from the same treatment.

Why not rutabaga greens?

In fact, they make a great substitute for spinach. So if you have a favorite spinach lasagna recipe, consider making it with rutabaga greens instead.

For the filling, I mixed a cup of cooked rutabaga greens, finely chopped, with two cups of ricotta cheese and two beaten eggs. Season to taste with salt, nutmeg and freshly ground black pepper. Meanwhile, in a heavy skillet over low heat, sweat half an onion, diced small, in some extra-virgin olive oil until soft, about 10 minutes, then add two finely chopped garlic cloves. Continue cooking until the garlic is cooked through. Stir this into the greens/cheese mixture.

To make a sauce, melt two tablespoon butter and stir in two tablespoons all-purpose flour. Cook the flour over moderately-low heat for three or four minutes, then begin whisking in milk, two cups total. Season with salt and about 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg. Cook until sauce is bubbling and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. If too thick, add more milk.

To assemble the lasagna, I used a non-stick baking pan 8 1/2 inches square and 2 1/2 inches deep. Grease with canola spray, then coat the bottom with some of the sauce and cover with no-boil lasagna noodles (or the noodles of your choice). Spread some of the greens/cheese mix over the noodles, drizzle with sauce, then dust with grated Parmesan cheese and grated mozzarella. Continue the layering process until the ingredients are used up, making sure to save some of the sauce and cheese for the top.

Put the pan on a baking sheet and place in a 350-degree oven. Bake until the top is golden and bubbly.

You will be so glad you didn't throw your rutabaga greens in the compost.

We're in The Washington Post

The Washington Post this weekend ran a feature in its Sunday Source section on gardening in containers. They asked me, the kitchen gardener, to come up with a design for for an edible container scheme.

Gardening in containers is a great idea if you are short of space or want to be able to move your plants from one place to another. And if you can grow it in the ground, you can grow it in a pot. You can have an entire salad garden on your back deck. Containers are also good for tender plants that need to be taken in during the winter.

The Post reporter interviewed me for almost an hour on a range of gardening issues. You won't find much of that in the text, although several experts weigh in with good advice.

The one item we took strong exception to was the advice to feed container plants with a certain commercial product containing artificial fertilizers. We don't use artificial fertilizers, preferring things like compost, fish emulsion or alfalfa meal. Also peat moss, most of it harvested in bogs in Canada, is considered an unsustainable product. Look for potting mixes that contain alternatives.

Once you get to the story, you can find my container design by clicking on "Tailor-Made Gardens," then choose number 2. Take a look at all the designs. They're all very interesting. The reporter, Dan Zack, spent a lot of time on this and did a good job.

Garden Progress Report

You know you've caught the gardening fever when you are swept away by your fava beans. Favas are an architectural wonder. The leaf structures are fascinating. These plants are six inches tall now and bursting with energy.


Last summer I planted turnips for the fall and had the hardest time getting them to germinate. I planted seeds three times--I think it was the heat. Turnips like cool weather. Well, this has been an unusually cool spring for us here in the District of Columbia and the turnips are loving it.


The potato sets went into the ground the day after St. Patrick's Day and look at them now. I could sit and admire my potato plants all day, they are so rich in color and the deeply etched leaves give them a sculpted look. Different varieties have leaves etched in purple.


This is our first year planting spinach in our kitchen garden one mile from the White House and so far I am pleased with the results. I could have planted these much earlier, or even in the fall. I'd be happy if the cool weather holds.

The last few days have brought steady rains, which splatters soil underneath the leaves. When you plant seeds directly in the garden, there's always a period when the bare soil is exposed. I like to plant thickly: As the plants mature the foliage creates its own mulch, shading the soil to retain moisture and suppress weeds. It seems to work pretty well, and it saves having to move a bunch of mulch around. With bigger plants such as tomatoes and cucumbers I spread a thick layer of straw.


We love spicy greens so I plant lots of them. This is a patchwork quilt of mustards and Chineses greens in a bed 15 feet long and four feet wide. The white line you see running through the bottom of the picture is the string border I put up to keep the dog out. It works.


The onions are happy as clams. I recently planted French Breakfast radishes in between the two rows. We'll see how this interplanting scheme works. I was a little late out of the blocks with radishes this year.

This is year number two for our rhubarb plants, so we won't be harvesting much. It's best to wait until the third year to really start collecting the stems. Waiting gives the roots plenty of time to establish themselves. Rhubarb loves organic matter, so we worked lots of compost into the soil and mulched heavily with compost around the plants. No artificial fertilizers here, and you can see the results.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Teaching Teachers to Garden

Each year one of the groups I work with, D.C. Schoolyard Greening, holds a two-day workshop aimed at helping more teachers create gardens at their schools. This is the second year that we've held our hands-on session at the Washington Youth Garden in the National Arboretum. In the picture at left, Gilda Allen, of the D.C. Department of the Environment, Watershed Protection Division, leads a session in soil testing and composting.

This year we were lucky to have Judy Tiger, former executive director of Garden Resources of Washington, opening the session with some detailed advice on working with kids outdoors. Taking a group of 20 or more children into the garden is no easy trick. You can't just open the door and turn them loose. Judy has years of experience and lots of good tips for keeping kids focused--or at least not starting a riot.

Rule number one: Never let kids play with the garden hose. (Or maybe just once on a special occasion.) And a suggestion: Don't tell kids they are spreading compost. Tell them they are sprinkling "fairy dust."

Is it just my imagination, or are our teachers getting younger, smarter and more enthusiastic about this school gardening concept? We had about two dozen enroll this year. That's a great turnout, especially considering that in years past, the teachers were paid to be there.

We divided the group in two and they switched between two workshops in the morning--Gilda's on soil and composting and another on seed starting and transplanting. Claire Cambardella of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation brought in a homemade lunch of fresh, local ingredients (and even home-baked rolls). Then we were back in the field for two more workshops, garden maintenance and creating garden lesson plans.

Somehow I got tagged to handle the maintenance end. For an organic gardener that usually means talking about weeds. But I prefer to talk about how modern gardening is turning back the clock, rejecting pesticides and artificial fertilizers and reviving a more intimate relationship with nature and natural rhythms. In our scheme, maintenance is more about building great soil. Still, we give the teachers a very cool Japanese gardening tool that looks like a cross between a chef's knife and a martial arts weapon. It's just the thing for digging out weeds at the roots.

My partner this year in the maintenance division was Marti Goldstone who has spent the last nine years building an incredible garden at the Horace Mann Elementary School in Northwest D.C. Her group started with jack hammers and backhoes, digging up asphalt and concrete to make room for garden beds.

School gardens face special challenges since they're on vacation for much of the prime growing season. Still, Marti and her science teaching partner Louise Hill have managed to keep the garden growing year after after and now have integrated food preparation into the scheme, not an easy trick either when your school has no cooking facilities. But Marti says they may have licked that problem as well--plans for a small kitchen are on the drawing board.


We were experiencing a short heat wave this weekend and that brought all kinds of visitors to the garden. Some are starting their gardening at a very early age. Maybe we are looking at the garden teachers of the future.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Weekend Update

Mounting food crises around the globe destabilized governments and began to look more and more like a cruel joke perpetrated by the rich northern hemisphere against its poorer brethren in the south. Especially culpable is the ill-advised policy of turning corn into automobile fuel as a means of propping up an over-indulged but teetering American lifestyle.

Ethanol made from corn takes on an especially sinister hew when Haitians are eating dirt pies to stave off hunger. At a meeting in Washington, leaders from poor countries called on the U.S. and others to reconsider their support for turning food crops into fuel. Work by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington suggests that biofuel production accounts for a quarter to a third of the recent increase in global commodity prices.

But the powers in Washington will hear none of that. Senator Charles E. Grassley, (R-Iowa), called the recent criticism of ethanol by foreign officials “a big joke,” citing drought in Australia and growing demand for meat in China and India as more important factors.

But get this for American smugness: “You make ethanol out of corn,” Grassley said. “I bet if I set a bushel of corn in front of any of those delegates, not one of them would eat it.”

Technically, he is correct. Most of the corn grown in Iowa is inedible. It's turned into high-fructose corn syrup to help make Americans fatter. Thanks for the clarification, senator. The mud pies are starting to taste better already.

Meanwhile, economist Lester Brown was heard to say on National Public Radio: “The grain required to fill a 25 gallon SUV tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year, and what we’re seeing now is the emergence of direct competition between the 860 million people in the world who own automobiles and who want to maintain their mobility, while the two billion poorest people in the world simply want to survive.”

******

Yet it stands to reason that if food prices are going through the roof and millions of people are on the brink of starvation, someone has to be making out like a bandit. Who would that be? Well, it may not be small, individual farmer so much as the big corporations involved in planting and growing food.

Does the name Monsanto sound familiar?

A longtime farmer from Southern Indiana reports that since last year, seed corn has increased in price from $133 a bag to $191. Fertilizer has doubled from $578 a bag from $238, and nitrate has spiked from $518 a bag to $799.

The current battle cry for investors: There's gold in that thar food!

*****

Or, you can just do nothing and collect your taxpayer-funded, crop subsidy check from the U.S. government .

If the House version of the farm bill becomes law, $120,000 checks will go out to the nation's most profitable farms, or to big landowners who don't farm at all but just own large tracts of farm land. The top subsidy recipient for 2006 was Richland Foods, a rice cooperative, which pulled in $7.7 million.

But the biggest cash cow is still corn. Over the past 12 years, U.S. taxpayers have shelled out $56 billion in corn subsidies.

The Washington Post went out looking to see where all this federal money is going and published a series titled "Harvesting Cash." After a year of investigating in the field, the Post reporters found that most of the money was going to the biggest farms that were putting small family farms out of business. Taxpayers spent $9 billion on disaster payments--often to the same farmers--with the big beneficiaries being insurance companies. Drought aid ended up in the pockets of middlemen. At least $1.6 billion was given to landowners who had planted nothing since 2001, some of the recipients being homeowners in new housing developments where the back yards used to be rice fields.

Your taxpayer dollars at work....

*****

Meanwhile, Second Harvest, the nation's largest food bank network, says 35 million Americans are hungry and desperately need Congress to pass a farm bill.
“Our food bank members across the country have reported tremendous increases in the number of people seeking help to feed their families in the past several months. Soup kitchens and the food pantries are seeing many new faces among those standing in line for assistance," said Vicki Escarra, Second Harvest president, in a press release.

“Many of these people are the working poor – honest, hard-working people who have low-wage jobs and just can’t make ends meet in these tough economic times. They are in desperate circumstances, struggling to keep a roof over their heads – and to keep their children fed. The recent spike in food and gasoline prices has only made a terrible situation worse.

“At the same time, donations of food from the USDA bonus commodity program have fallen by more than 75 percent in the past four years, forcing our food banks to spend more and more money buying food to meet demand. Last year alone, our food banks spent more than $127 million on food purchases."

*****

At the other end of the food line, people trying to eat healthy are seeing their grocery bills spike as well. The price of organic goods has gone through the roof.

In some parts of the country, a loaf of organic bread can cost $4.50, a pound of pasta has hit $3, and organic milk is closing in on $7 a gallon.

“It’s probably the most dynamic and volatile time I’ve seen in 25 years,” said Gary Hirshberg, chief executive of Stonyfield Farm, an organic dairy business. “It’s extremely difficult to predict where it’s going.”

Farmers are receiving unheard of prices for organic grains. People who have to buy organic ingredients--bakers, pasta makers, chicken and dairy farmers--say they are struggling to maintain profit margins, even though shoppers are paying more. The price of organic animal feed is so high that some dairy farmers have abandoned organic farming methods and others are pushing retailers to raise prices more aggressively.

Prices for conventional corn, soybeans and wheat are at or near records, so there is less incentive for farmers to switch to organic crops.

*****

And don't look now, but those lousy school lunches your kid eats could be getting even worse because of rapidly escalating food prices.

In Davie County, North Carolina, the Yoo-hoo chocolate drink that had been taken out of schools in favor of healthier conventional milk products is back. That's because each bottle of Yoo-hoo brings in 36 cents in profits.

In New York schools, pizza was being served without the turkey pepperoni topping. For a while, tomatoes were nixed from school salads in Montgomery County, Maryland. The same school system is looking at a $600,000 increase in its dairy bill next year. Some schools around the nation's capitol are talking about jacking up the price of lunch.

In Alexandria, Virginia, the school board approved a 10-cent increase for students who pay full price, raising the lunch price in elementary school to $2.15 and in middle and high schools to $2.45.

"There's a tipping point somewhere, and I think we're there," said Becky Domokos-Bays, director of food services for Alexandria schools. "I don't know how much more families can afford to pay."

*****

Finally, our "Gasbags of the Week" award goes to the leaders of the worlds banks for all their hand-wringing over food prices. World Bank President World Bank Robert Zoellick and the International Monetary Fund's Dominique Strauss-Kahn were both heard wailing about hunger and political unrest resulting from the world's food crises.

Their solution, of course, would be more free trade and other policies that have driven subsistence farmers off their land and forced Third-World countries to use up their food surpluses in order to pay off their debts to rich overlords to the north.

It's enough to make some writers want to gag.

Bon appetit....

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Searching for D.C.'s Municipal Compost

Across the country, municipalities are engaging citizens in composting as a means of reducing the waste stream. Anywhere from 15 percent to 30 percent of trash being hauled to landfills is organic matter that could be composted and returned to the soil. There's no reason why the piles of scraps we produce in the coarse of cooking meals can't be recycled to enrich our soil, make more food, and help reduce greenhouse gases. It's a perfect trifecta in which people and the planet win.


So you might think we here in the nation's capitol would be on the cutting edge of the composting movement. As head of a local gardening organization in the District of Columbia, I routinely field questions from citizens eager to compost their kitchen scraps. Even non-gardeners are looking for ways they can do the planet a good turn. So where is the city's compost?


We caught up with the District's head of public works, William Howland, at a recent community and garden club meeting where he was speaking on the subject of recycling. We asked the question and learned that the District of Columbia--our nation's capitol, now presided over by a young mayor who swears we are going to be a green city--has no municipal composting program and none on the horizon.


What about all those leaves the city collects in the fall--10 tons of leaves? According to Howland, these were routinely trucked off to landfills in years past. Recently, there was a pilot program to compost leaves on city property in the Maryland suburbs. A project to compost leaves collaboratively with the University of the District of Columbia at a facility in Beltsville, MD, is being discussed.


Still, local garden legend tells of a municipal compost pile somewhere near the Capital. No sooner did I report on the local blogs that the District has no compost than a local gardener shouts back that this long-rumored compost pile does in fact exist. It has an address. I am soon in hot pursuit.


And now I can tell the world that the nation's capitol does, indeed, possess a pile of what gardeners call "leaf mold," meaning the composted remains of leaves collected in the fall. We're not exactly sure where it comes from. And having finally located it, I can say that there has never been a compost heap more difficult to find or more completely obscured from public view.


This pile is next to a public works vehicle garage and trash dumping site at New Jersey Avenue and K Street SE, a scene of scruffy industrial buildings and dusty lots wedged between an elevated freeway, a busy commuter route and some railway tracks. Since it is not far from an area where development is being spurred by the addition of a new baseball stadium, there are also, oddly, spanking-new apartment buildings rising overhead as well.


I thought I had landed in an outtake from "The French Connection." Before me stood a vast collection of dump trucks, snow plows, salt spreaders and street cleaning vehicles. The lot was jammed with private vehicles as well, yet not a human being in sight. I circled, probed, and circled again looking for this compost. I discovered that to get into the lot, I had to choose one of two ramps leading into and through a rather scary looking brick building lorded over by a tall smoke stack.


Finally I spotted two men working on a water tanker.


"Where's the compost?" I asked.


"There! Over there," they said, pointing to a big, yellow front-end loader off in the distance.


I drove to the spot and, sure enough, there in a far corner of the lot were three different piles of material: sand, mulch and a dark, rich-looking compost. The front-end loader was blocking the path into the area. I had to take my 1997 Toyota Corolla "off road" to get closer.

So here's a picture of what the District of Columbia's compost (or "leaf mold") looks like. Good stuff, if you can get past the bottle caps, pieces of plastic trash bags and other debris that come with it. I returned the following day to fill a trash can and some 5-gallon buckets. It's time to top off the garden containers at my daughter's charter school.


It was a moment of personal triumph: I had finally tracked down our own local, publicly financed compost. And it's free!


But I can't help being nagged by a persistent question: Can't we do better?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Teaching Teachers to Make Salad

Since building a large container garden at my daughter's charter school two years ago I've been involved in teaching kids how to prepare fresh produce as well as working with an organization that helps other teachers start gardens at their own schools.

School gardens expose children to healthy, locally grown food and can be used to teach all sorts of skills, including science, reading, math and art. But getting school gardens off the ground and maintaining them present a number of challenges. Not least of these is the fact that most schools are on vacation during the summer, the peak growing season in most areas of the country.

That's why I emphasize salad and other greens in the school gardening scheme. Cool weather crops such as leaf lettuce, arugula, mizuna, cress and mache can be planted in March or April and harvested before the school year is over. To those you can add radishes and carrots. The carrots might not be ready till fall. Or, in our case, you can plant carrots in the fall and be harvesting them in spring. Fall is a good time to plant a second round of salad.

Yesterday was our annual teacher workshop with D.C. Schoolyard Greening, the organization I work with. I presided over the salad clinic, where I gave my best pitch for growing salads and also passed along some of the lessons I've learned working with groups of children.

* Avoid taking large groups of children into the garden by yourself. Focus and control become issues when kids are released to the outdoors. I try to have at least one other adult with me, and work with two or three kids at a time planting seeds or harvesting. There need to be specific rules of behavior in the garden.

* Kids love harvesting and preparing vegetables. Planting seeds takes no more than a few minutes. But you can occupy children for hours turning lettuce into salad. They will fight for a chance to wash the lettuce and crank it dry in the salad spinner. I prefer to plant leaf lettuces rather than heading lettuces. Leaf lettuces grow fast, and they produce more leaves when you cut them.

* Teach kids basic kitchen safety. An important lesson is placing a kitchen towel under the cutting board to keep it from moving. An unstable cutting surface leads to injuries.

* Young children in my classes use plastic knives, which are good enough to cut things like carrots and radishes. But vegetables should lie flat for cutting. Chasing a radish around the cutting board is dangerous. Instead, cut it in half lengthwise to create a flat surface. It can then be sliced without moving. I usually slice carrots into sticks before giving them to children to cut into dice.

* Kids love working with simple tools. They will occupy themselves for hours with a vegetable peeler or a box grater. To peel a carrot, I teach them to work on one half of the carrot first, then flip the carrot around to peel the other half. This makes the work go faster and reduces the risk of fingertips getting cut.

* Making vinaigrette is a good way to teach fractions as well as the concept of an emulsion. A classic vinaigrette consists of three parts oil to one part vinegar. Here's a simple recipe for a honey-mustard vinaigrette:

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
generous pinch coarse salt
pinch ground pepper
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

In a bowl, whisk together mustard, honey, salt, pepper and vinegar. Add a drop or two of olive oil and whisk vigorously until the olive oil is completely incorporated. Add remaining olive oil and whisk until vinaigrette is smooth and homogeneous. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. If it seems too sharp, whisk in more olive oil.

Pass the bowl around so the kids can take turns using the whisk. They will not tire of it. Pretty soon you will have kids loving the salad they made themselves.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Kids Make Rhubarb Muffins

Have you ever tried dicing rhubarb with a plastic knife?

"It won't cut the skin!" the kids in my "food appreciation" classes cried.

Well, nobody said learning how to cook was going to be easy.

I'm surprised how many people don't know what rhubarb is and don't even recognize it in the store. We always had rhubarb in the spring when I was growing up. Tons and tons of rhubarb. Along with asparagus, it's one of the earliest edibles in the garden. Since we try to cook with the seasons in our classes, I wanted to expose my kids to the glories of rhubarb.

Fortunately, there are any number of kid-friendly rhubarb recipes. Not long ago I conducted a search for rhubarb texts at my favorite on-line book seller and purchased no less than three different cook books devoted to this vegetable masquerading as a dessert fruit. One of them, "The Joy of Rhubarb," is nearly 250 pages long and has an entire chapter on rhubarb muffins and breads.

I thought rhubarb wheat bran muffins was a good place to start. Muffins have a number of virtues: kids love them, and they don't take long to bake in the oven. That makes them a perfect choice for cooking classes. The bran is a reminder that we like to cook healthy whenever we can. Bran is full of fiber, something woefully lacking in modern processed foods.

This lesson reinforces a couple of basic baking techniques: Mix dry ingredients in one bowl, wet ingredients in a second bowl. When the time comes, pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. This procedure rarely varies. Also, this is a good example of a chemical rise. One of the dry ingredients is baking soda. One of the wet ingredients is buttermilk. When the acid in the buttermilk mixes with the base content of the baking soda, a chemical reaction occurs that makes gas that causes the muffin dough to expand or rise. This is much faster and more convenient than baking with yeast and is common in muffins and quick breads.

For 12 muffins:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup wheat bran
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups fresh rhubarb, diced small
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1/2 cup corn oil
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

In a bowl, mix flour, bran, brown sugar, baking soda and salt. In a second bowl, beat buttermilk and egg together, then mix in oil. Separately, mix together sugar and cinnamon and set aside.

Grease a muffin tin (paper cups are optional, but should be greased if used, as with a cooking spray). Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and mix until just incorporated. Spoon mix into muffin tin, distributing mix as evenly as possible. Sprinkle sugar-cinnamon mix over tops of muffins. Place muffins on middle rack of oven.

Bake 25 to 28 minutes, or until muffins are browned and a toothpick inserted into a muffin comes out clean.

If you have buttermilk left over, pour yourself a glass. It's just the thing to wash down one of these muffins.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Stone-Ground Guacamole

Sometimes it takes no small amount of effort to track down a ripe avocado in this town. We've found a small Latin store in the neighborhood where they keep a box of ripe ones near the cash register. But this is not the kind of information one gives away for nothing.

Lately, however, ripe avocados have appeared in abundance at the local Whole Foods. On an impulse, I grabbed a couple the other day along with a white onion, a serrano pepper and a plum tomato--the standard makings for my version of guacamole. In our house, we can easily make dinner out of a bowl of guacamole and corn chips.

I start my guacamole in a molcajete and I think that makes all the difference. In certain Mexican restaurants you may order guacamole and a waiter with show up at your table with a molcajete and tejolote--the Mexican version of a mortar and pestle, made out of volcanic basalt stone. But this is mostly for show. They aren't doing the real grinding that an authentic guacamole requires.

You can start a guacamole on a cutting board or even in a food process. But this merely chops the ingredients into little pieces. Grinding them in the molcajete breaks down the essential elements on a cellular level, releasing flavors that otherwise are merely hinted at in other guacamoles.

I start with cumin seed and coarse salt and grind that into a powder. Then I add white onion and a seeded serrano chili and continue grinding until there is a profoundly aromatic, green slush at the bottom of the molcajete. It is at this point that I begin adding the avocado. I do not grind it, but smash it with a fork, then add diced tomato and chopped cilantro. The finished guacamole is so flavorful and so good, there's no need for lime juice, but of course there's nothing to say you can't have some if that's what you like.

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt, or to taste
¼ white onion finely chopped, plus two tablespoons for garnish
2 small chilies serranos (or to taste), seeds removed and chopped fine
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro leaves
3 ripe avocados, peeled (save one pit for garnish)
1 large ripe tomato, peeled and roughly chopped

In the molcajete, grind cumin seeds and salt to a fine powder. Add all but 2 tablespoons onion, the chilies, 1/3 cup cilantro. Pound and grind until the mixture resembles a coarse, green relish. Add avocado. Gently pound and mix with other ingredients. You can also use a fork at this point to smash the avocado.The dip should be a bit lumpy (not like the baby food or library paste that passes for guacamole in the supermarket). Fold in chopped tomato. Adjust seasonings.

Serve the guacamole proudly in your molcajete, garnished with the remaining chopped onion and cilantro.

Note: We bought our molcajete in Mexico, but you can get them at many better cookwares stores and over the internet. Just make sure you are getting one made out of genuine basalt and not an immitation made out of concrete.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What to Do with Dandelions

"Daddy! Look at all the dandelions!"

That was daughter's reaction this weekend to the incredible bloom taking place in our front "yard." It's been an unusually cool spring so far, ideal for all sorts of cool weather plants, be they in the garden beds or in the spaces in between.

Dandelion, chickweed, wild strawberry and many whose name I do not know: They are thriving and on the move. Some, such as the chickweed, are just noxious, slinking into the lettuce, twining around the cilantro. But chickweed is edible. Try running it through a food processor and turning it into pesto sauce.

Dandelion greens of course are also famously edible, either cooked or in a salad. But somehow the tender greens eluded me and now the plants were all in bloom. They make a terrific display. Have you ever looked closely at a dandelion flower? It is a wondrous piece of construction, the color uniformly intense and cheerful. Most homeowners would be running for the herbicide. But with so many dandelions I couldn't help wondering, Isn't there some way we can eat them?

Having recently written a piece on edible weeds for Martha Stewart, I was able to answer my own question: perhaps not eat the flowers, but we could certainly drink them in the form of dandelion wine. Daughter leaped at the idea and ran to the kitchen to fetch a bowl. A short time later the bowl was nearly full and daughter's hands were stained a bright yellow from picking dandelion blossoms.

I confess, this is a first for me. I have never made dandelion wine before. I just went to the internet and pulled the first recipe I found. Some of you old hands out there might have some pointers. Do you have a favorite method? See what you think of this:

1 package dried yeast
1/4 cup warm water
2 quarts dandelion blossoms
4 quarts water
1 cup orange juice
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
8 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped orange peel
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped lemon peel
6 cups sugar

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and set aside.

Wash the dandelion blossoms and drain in a colander. Put the water in a heavy pot and add the dandelion blossoms, orange, lemon and lime juices, then add the cloves, ginger, orange and lemon peel and sugar. Bring to a boil and cook for one hour. Strain through filter paper (such as coffee filter) or a very fine sieve and cool. While still warm but not hot (around 100 degrees) stir in the yeast.

Let the brew stand overnight, then pour into bottles. Place the bottles, uncorked, in a cool, dark place for three weeks. Then cork the bottles and store in a cool place. Makes about 4 quarts.

We started our wine making yesterday. I was anxious to try it this morning. Frankly, I had thought the recipe a strange mix of ingredients. But the flavor is surprisingly good--a mulled citrus with a definite tang. There's no discernible kick to this wine yet. I'm guessing that comes later, after the yeast have had plenty of time to feast on the sugar.

I ladled the brew into quart-sized canning jars and secured paper towel over the tops to keep out the fruit flies. The jars have a nicely packaged look, the wine a deep yellow color like fresh butter. I'm stashing the jars in our back pantry. I'll be back in a few weeks with an update.

Monday, April 14, 2008

This Spud's for You

The first potato plant of the season has been sighted. Ain't she a beauty?

Healthy Blogging Awards

I woke up yesterday to learn that The Slow Cook had been selected as one of 10 inductees in FoodFit.com's first annual "Best Healthy Food Blogs" awards. Who knew?

We are in pretty good company. The other blogs chosen are Eat Close to Home, Chefs Collaborative, Chews Wise, Edible Nation, The Ethicurean, Mighty Foods, 101 Cookbooks, Pinch My Salt and Organic to Be. Most of these are already on our blog role.

You might well ask, What are these awards and what is FoodFit?

Foodfit is the creation of Ellen Haas, a one-time food activist who became the Clinton administration's assistant secretary for food and consumer services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, presiding over the nation's school lunch program, among other things. Formerly president of Consumer Federation of America, Haas founded and served as executive director of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a national advocacy group that agitated for improved food labeling, seafood safety and beef grading.

Haas has authored four books in recent years, beginning with "Great Adventures in food: Fresh Ways to Celebrate Every Meal" (St. Martin’s 1999) and "Fit Food: Eating Well for Life" (Hatherleigh Press, 2005). She started the FoodFit.com website in 2000. Subscribers (apparently free) receive a personal fitness profile and a diet plan with recipes--many contributed by some of the country's top chefs--aimed at specific dietary needs. The site sends periodic e-mails with targeted advice, and there's also a chat room where subscribers can compare notes.

The website has a number of features--an interview with Alice Waters, tips on how to burn more calories, what to do about knee replacement surgery. For some reason, though, the time frame seems to be stuck on fall. For instance, there's a segment on how to get motivated for fall entertaining. Yo, we're in April already!

It's not clear how The Slow Cook found its way onto FoofFit's radar. "In honor of National Public Health Week, FoodFit Founder Ellen Haas has picked her Top Healthy Food Blogs," is how the website announced the awards.


Well, we are tickled to have been chosen. The Slow Cook is about growing food close to home, making dinner a meaningful experience for the family, taking control of the pace of our own lives. Our idea of healthy eating is to be a little more mindful of how feeding ourselves affects the rest of the planet.


So thank you, Ellen Haas, for including The Slow Cook in such an esteemed group.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Weekend Update

At least five people and one United Nations soldier have been killed in Haiti as angry crowds rioted over the price of food.

The Haitian parliament fired its prime minister shortly after president Rene Preval announced plans to cut the price of rice.

The cost of food in Haiti has risen at least 50 percent in the last year, a cause for extreme hardship in a country where the average resident earns less than $2 a day. Many Haitians have been supplementing their diets with pies made out of dirt.

U.N. troops were brought in to restore order. According to the U.N. a soldier returning to his barracks with food was pulled from his vehicle and killed execution style.

Even bankers meeting in Washington were moved to comment on the growing worldwide unrest over spiking food prices. The head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, said that if prices do not abate, "thousands, hundreds of thousands of people will be starving."

*****

Will soaring food costs put a dent in America's big bellies?

Probably not. In fact, it was recently noted that the daily calories available for consumption by the average American have actually increased from 3,600 to 4,000, or about twice what most humans actually need.

But if you look closely at your plate next time you are dining out, you may see that your portion has shrunk a little. Or maybe the plate has gotten smaller to make your shrinking steak look bigger. Or maybe some simple vegetables have been added to the a la carte items to make them seem more filling.

These are just some of the strategies restaurants are using to cut costs while making customers think they're getting the same old whopping portions. You might also see prices change from $10.95 to $10.99. Apparently, in the new food economy, every penny counts.

The Washington Post this morning is giving the story front page treatment.

*****

Also making national headlines was the cancellation of the salmon fishing season in California and Oregon for the first time ever.

Scientists and government officials are expecting this year's West Coast salmon population to be one of the smallest ever, because of the collapse of Sacramento River chinook, one of the West Coast's biggest wild salmon runs.

"For the entire West Coast, this is the worst in history," said Don McIsaac, executive director of the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Scientists are still studying the causes of the Sacramento River chinook collapse, with possible factors ranging from ocean conditions and habitat destruction to dam operations and agricultural pollution.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in response to the salmon shutdown and asked the Bush administration to declare a federal fisheries disaster. Schwarzenegger said the loss of the salmon fishery could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

State Fish and Game estimates canceling the salmon season could cost California $255 million and lead to the loss of more than 2,200 jobs.

*****

Meanwhile, closer to home here in the nation's capitol, Virginia watermen met to consider whether to file a class action lawsuit against government officials for a decline in the Chesapeake Bay, where the local blue crab population is teetering on the verge of collapse.

Crab harvests are at record lows. Professional crab fishermen argue that part of the reason is the increasing pollution and worsening health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Officials in Virginia and Maryland are considering sharp restrictions on crab harvesting this year in an attempt to revive the sagging crab population. Virginia has already announced new measures, including lowered limits on the number of crabs that can be taken, caps on the number of watermen who can participate in a winter dredge season and increases in the size minimums on young crabs, called "peelers," from 3 inches to 3.25 inches until July 15 and then to 3.5 inches for the rest of the season.

Regulators warn that those limits could be just the beginning. When this year's winter dredge survey results come out, as is expected in the coming weeks, Maryland and Virginia officials say they will decide how far to cut the commercial harvest. The options include an all-out ban on commercial crab harvesting, an unlikely but possible decision.

"We don't expect this population dredge survey to show good news," said John M.R. Bull, spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. "The question is, whether it's bad or it's catastrophic. And if it's catastrophic, all bets are off."

*****

On a happier note, there is talk of an Ellwood Thompson's Local Market opening in our neighborhood.

This area of the District of Columbia was hard hit by the 1968 riots. The once-vibrant commercial hub was all but destroyed and has languished until recently. But where there once was blight and empty lots, huge new developments are taking place, including national brand department stores, restaurants, services and residential buildings.

Now comes the Richmond, Virginia-based Ellwood Thompson, which specializes in local produce and foods free of additives and high-fructose corn syrup. Ellwood Thompson reportedly is in final negotiations for a lease. We say it's high time we had a place where we can buy locally-grown food every day, and not just the few hours when the farmers markets are open.

Bon appetit....

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Dark Days: Rutabaga Souffle

Some time ago I promised Jennifer the Baklava Queen that I would share my recipe for rutabaga souffle. Well, here it is, Jennifer.

This also marks the end of the Dark Days Eat Local Challenge. This was a great idea of Laura's at the Urban Hennery blog, encouraging bloggers to eat locally during the winter when cooks would not normally be looking for local ingredients. Well, we did, and we found more than you might think and much of it right here in our own kitchen garden in the District of Columbia, one mile from the White House. My only regret is that this wonderful rutabaga dish missed the cutoff. Maybe next year....

I've been madly trying to harvest all my overwintered rutabaga before they go to seed and become inedible. Some of you apparently have never tried rutabaga before, or have been unable to find any worthwhile recipes for rutabaga. Here's a start.

Rutabaga is a close cousin to the turnip. Turnips are fairly bland and have an almost bitter flavor. (They are much better fresh out of the ground. Try growing your own.) Rutabagas have a fruitier flavor with more depth. They taste almost like their color--a pale, yellowish orange.

Transforming rutabaga into a souffle is a snap. You can turn almost anything into a souffle, which is basically whipped egg whites folded into a flour-based sauced flavored with fruits or vegetables. And if you're a lazy cook like me and don't like a lot of fuss and bother at meal time, you can make your souffle ahead of time. Either refrigerate or freeze the souffle before baking it. When the time comes, bring it back to room temperature, then put it in the oven. The eggs will hold their puffiness just fine.

I learned about this rutabaga and cheddar souffle from a February 1991 issue of Gourmet magazine. I lost my copy of the magazine, but the basic outlines of the recipe stayed with me. Recently, a friend provided me with a photo-copy of the original magazine version and I realized I had been missing some critical details that really infuse the souffle with flavor, such as using the rutabaga cooking liquid instead of plain milk in the base sauce. Just remember that souffles are not as hard as they look, although you will get a few utensils dirty.

The original recipe calls for fitting a collar made of tin foil around the souffle dish. I don't use the collar and I haven't experienced a problem, but that may hinge on the size of your souffle dish. Not using the collar gives the souffle a more rustic look, as opposed to a perfect restaurant version. It is important to butter the inside of the souffle dish well and dust it with bread crumbs so that the souffle can rise.


The recipe:

1 1/2-quart souffle dish buttered and dusted with bread crumbs

1 pound rutabaga, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

6 large eggs, separated

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

6 ounces grated sharp Cheddar cheese (preferably white cheddar cheese)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Fit the souffle dish with a doubled band of tin foil six inches wide so that it extends about 3 inches over the top of the dish. Butter the foil and dust with bread crumbs.

Cook the rutabaga in a large saucepan of salted water until tender, about 25 minutes. Drain the rutabaga through a sieve over a bowl, reserving the cooking liquid. Set rutabaga aside.

In a saucepan, melt butter and add flour. Cook the roux, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add 1 1/2 cups of the reserved cooking liquid, whisking continuously. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. In a food processor, blend the roux mixture with the cooked rutabaga until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and whisk in the egg yolks, one yolk at a time.

In another large bowl, whisk the egg whites with salt and cream of tartar until they just hold stiff peaks. Stir one-fourth of the egg whites into the rutabaga mixture, then gently fold in the remaining egg whites. Pour the mixture into the souffle dish, place in oven on a baking sheet and cook for 50 minutes, or until souffle is puffed and golden.

Can you think of any more elegant way of putting a stake through the heart of Old Man Winter?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Rutabaga, Rutabaga, Rutabaga!

I planted rutabaga late last year. They overwintered in the garden but now are beginning to go to seed, which can only mean one thing: Soon, they will be inedible. I am harvesting and cooking rutabaga as fast as I can. Tomorrow, rutabaga souffle. For now, here is something I wrote for The Washington Post once upon a time, but it was never published.

I don’t normally get emotional over vegetables. But something about rutabagas makes me tear up a little.


They look so lonely.


You hardly ever see anyone rush to the produce section to squeeze the rutabagas. Nobody swoons over rutabagas the way they fuss about a perfectly leafy fennel, say, or cute little patty pan squash, or even baby golden beets. You never see signs in the grocery reading, “Just In: Fresh Rutabagas!” Nor can I remember the last time anyone tried to cut in front of me in the checkout line with a cart full of rutabagas.


A gentle giant among root vegetables, the rutabaga is largely misunderstood and even feared as a holiday side dish. Swedish people love to grow and eat it, giving rutabaga its nickname, “Swede.” But the Scandinavians have failed to ignite a trend. In all of the on-line Food Network archives, for instance, there are only two recipes specifically for rutabaga, compared with about a zillion for artichokes. And when I inquired about rutabaga at my local Whole Foods, the produce man nearly burst out laughing.


“We don’t carry rutabagas!” he sniggered.


In a cruel twist, lots of people think rutabagas are more funny than edible.
Obscure rock groups such as “Rutabaga Paradox” play on the rutabaga moniker as a way of advertising their obscurity in a hip, ironic sort of way. Authors call on “rutabaga” when they want to conjure up a completely ridiculous image, as in “Beatnik Rutabagas from Beyond the Stars,” an actual novel about teenagers who encounter aliens that look like—what else?-- rutabagas.


There is even a web site for something called “The Advanced Rutabaga Studies Institute.” Located in Forest Grove, Oregon, the institute purports to test the effects of cold storage on three particularly stoic rutabagas--Arnold, Bertrand and Carlotta--who can be viewed 24/7 through the site’s digital camera, or “rutacam.”


(Michael O’Brien, a lawyer in Forest Grove and faculty member at Pacific University, admits the site is a spoof. It is, O’Brien said, his way of working through years of teasing from friends over his family’s embrace of rutabagas at Thanksgiving and Christmas.)


In my own case, I cannot pass a rutabaga display in the supermarket without a certain wobbly Frank Zappa tune—“Call Any Vegetable”—blaring in my head. One of the song’s refrains is a mind-bending, cowboy-style yodel: Rutabaga, rutabaga, rutabaga, rutabaga, rutabay-y-y—y…


Somehow, it has stuck with me since 1969.


The stubborn rutabaga does little to advance its own cause. A cross between a turnip and a cabbage, brassica napus comes out of the ground the size of a coconut and hard as a baseball, making it nearly always lethal when dropped from tall buildings. Its skin is greenish-purple and usually covered with a scary layer of wax.


Once cracked, however, the rutabaga yields a pleasantly pale, yellowish-orange flesh that is mildly sweet and faintly earthly.


The challenge, as I see it, is to transform the rutabaga into something not only respected, but loved. The course seems obvious: a classic French makeover.
As everyone knows, the French practically invented the art of applying complicated cooking methods to strange foods and calling it haute cuisine. Besides, in the case of rutabaga, I have a head start: I’ve been making rutabaga soufflĂ© for years, before I knew rutabaga wasn’t popular.


In addition to the soufflé, I think my cream of rutabaga soup and my Rouqefort rutabaga gratin may completely change the face of rutabaga as we know it.

Kids Make Asparagus Frittata

Asparagus has a special place in the heart of the vegetable gardener. Being a perenniel, asparagus needs only to be planted once. Then, without much additional care, it will produce an abundance of lovely, fresh spears of asparagus year after year--for 15 years or more.

Kids, it turns out, love asparagus as well. They like to look at it's funny, spear-like shape. They like to hold it. They like to snap off the ends. And they like to saw it into pieces with their plastic knives.

Asparagus has a flavor unique in the world of vegetables and, as anyone who has eaten it knows, asparagus also has a lasting effect that shows up in a strange, odiferous way later in the bathroom. According to food authority Harold McGee, humans metabolize a sulfur-conatining substance--aspargusic acid--a chemical closely related to the essence of skunk spray, methanethiol. Because of genetic variations, not all people produce methanethiol, but most do. Kids just giggle when you mention it. But for adults, it's always a comfort to know you can tell when spring has arrived by the smell of your pee.

Making an asparagus frittata is so quick and easy I decided we should prepare asparagus two ways in our classes this week. First we cooked whole spears using my favorite method--poaching them in a large skillet filled with simmering, salted water.

I showed the kids how to find the tough part of the asparagus stem by bending it until it snaps. After we trimmed all the asparagus, we cooked it until there was just a tiny bit of resistance to the tooth. The cooked asparagus are plunged immediately into a bath of cold water, then are drained on paper towels. We dressed the asparagus in a red wine-mustard vinaigrette. They very quickly disappeared.

For the frittata, we used 12 eggs and my big, non-stick skillet. But the procedure is the same for a smaller frittata. Grease the skillet lightly and begin heating it on the stove. Meanwhile, beat the eggs well.

For a six-egg frittata, have four spears of asparagus on hand, cooked and cut into 3/4-inch pieces. Reserve the asparagus tips. Scatter the asparagus pieces in the skillet, then pour in the eggs. As the eggs cook on the bottom, lift around the edges with a heat-proof spatula so that the uncooked egg runs underneath. Continue this process until the egg is almost completely cooked. Arrange the asparagus tips on top, then set the skillet under the broiler to finish cooking.

The frittata is done when it is golden brown and rises to about twice its original size. To serve, cut the frittata into wedges, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and dress with grated Parmesan cheese. Consider serving it warm for breakfast or dinner, or as a room-temperatur appetizer or at the center of a composed salad. It also makes a dramatic display item on a Sunday brunch buffet, set on a ceramic stand and garnished with mustard blossoms.