Saturday, May 31, 2008

Graduation Day

Our old electric lawn mower from Costco started to sound more like an egg beater so I kissed it goodbye and joined the ranks of modern push-reelers. It's a great feeling not to be trailing that power cord through the garden, knocking over my lettuces and onion plants. And now I don't have to answer any more questions about how much coal the local power plant is burning so I can cut my grass.

I took the plunge after I noticed more and more of my neighbors ditching their two-stroke mowers (terrible polluters) for good, old-fashioned muscle power. Just lowering the noise level in our neighborhood--replacing the horrible din of gasoline engines with the gentle rattle of the push reel--is worth the switch.

Did you know that more gas is spilled filling lawn mowers each year than all the oil spilled by the Exxon-Valdez?

I did a bit of research on the internet and found you can spend $250 on a European reel mower. I opted for this Sunlawn model with a 14-inch-wide reel priced at $142 at Amazon. It arrived two days after I ordered it (free shipping) and took about 10 minutes to attach the handle assemble to the reel.

The blades are said to stay sharp for up to 10 years. What I like best about it is, it only weighs 16 pounds. Cheaper mowers are heavier. Not only is this one easy to carry from one place to another on our urban lot, but it hardly feels like pushing anything at all.

The push-reel doesn't cut as neatly as the power mower. Thin stalks of fine weeds manage to survive several passes. But we've never attempted to have a perfect lawn. We've never fertilized (just let the clippings fall in place) or applied any herbicides (we make dandelion wine). The yard's full of all different kinds of grasses, weeds and clovers. I imagine if you stayed on top of your mowing chores, you'd hardly be able to tell that you'd switched from power to manual.

I noticed that every few minutes mowing our overgrown lawn the height setting on the mower needed re-adjusting. I attribute that to having let the lawn go too long between cuttings. On this particular model, the highest setting is 2 inches. I wish it were a bit higher. Some models will cut as high as 3 inches.

I don't think it took me any longer to mow the yard with the push-reel than it did with the electric mower. We have some steeply sloping areas that I was concerned about, but I managed. Edges also are a bit of an issue: I'll have to come behind the reel mower with our electric line trimmer. What I will miss are the clippings for my compost pile.

Yesterday we stopped by the hardware store and there were all kinds of reel mowers on display. Apparently we're part of a healthy trend. That's something to feel good about.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Kids Make New Potato Salad with Onion Scapes

The inspiration for this potato salad came from our recent garden cleanup. Where I wanted to plant okra, potatoes were growing, apparently from spuds I had missed during last year's harvest.

I dug up the new plants (hated to do it) and in the process gathered a bucket-full of potatoes. Could they possibly be edible? I put them on the stove in a pot of water. The result was not too bad at all, but I thought they looked a little long in the tooth. That was easily solved with a mayonnaise dressing. And for a bit of green, I tossed in a handful of chopped onion scapes, those being the long flower stems I had recently snipped from our onion bed.

My wife doesn't care for mayonnaise dressing or hard-boiled eggs in her potato salad, so this was not to her taste at all. And when I decided to bring the recipe to school for our "food appreciation" classes, I got the baby red potatoes at Whole Foods, making this more of a seasonal dish. If you don't happen to have onion or garlic scapes handy, use chives.

Kids are always eager to cut things like potatoes and celery. It's not easy with their plastic knives, but they were not deterred.

2 pounds small boiling potatoes

3 hard-boiled eggs

2 celery stalks, cleaned, trimmed and diced small

1/4 yellow onion, diced small

2 tablespoons chopped onion or garlic scapes (or substitute chopped chives)

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

Cut the potatoes into bit-size pieces and cook until just tender in a large pot of salted water. Drain potatoes and chill in cold water. Drain potatoes again, then transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Peel the eggs and chop into bite-size pieces. Add eggs to potatoes, along with celery, onion and scapes (or chives). In a separate bowl, mix mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar and salt. Pour dressing over the salad and toss well. Serve at room temp.

The finished salad is a classic side dish for a barbecue or picnic. Many of the younger kids in our classes were put off by the idea of eggs and potatoes together, but the older kids wolfed it down and begged for seconds.

Peas with Pasta and Cream

If you have any concerns about your arteries or your waistline, you should probably avert your eyes. This is one of those dishes that can't be made any other way except with the best cream you can find and plenty of pecorino cheese.

That's the excuse I give myself when I want to make a meal out of the peas we've just harvested in the garden. The peas love to nestle in pasta shells such as these large elbows, or chiocciole. Rottini pasta would work as well.

Preparation is simple. Sweat 1/4 onion, diced small, in a heavy saute pan or skillet with olive oil. Season the onion with salt to draw out the liquid. When the onions are soft, after about 8 minutes, pour in 1 cup heavy cream, in this case the deliciously thick cream we get delivered from South Mountain Creamery. When the cream starts to bubble, lower the heat so that the cream continues to simmer.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil and add 1/2-pound pasta. While the pasta is cooking, the cream should thicken to a sauce-like consistency. Add 2/3-cup shelled peas to the sauce and cook just a minute or so, until the peas are softened to your taste. Season with a pinch of salt.

When the pasta is al dente, remove it from the pot, drain it well and toss it into the skillet with the cream sauce and peas. Stir in a liberal grating of pecorino cheese. Serve immediately in warm, shallow bowls.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Anybody who says frozen peas are as good as fresh is kidding themselves. We like to think it's true, because getting fresh peas isn't easy. But really, there's nothing to compare with peas right off the vine. My wife prefers them just like this--raw, uncooked. I see them tossed just a few seconds in a saute pan with some butter and a little salt. Our friend Shelley is wild for fresh peas. She tosses them in her salad.

We've had our best crop of peas this year. Some plants are loaded with pods. I planted them in a long row in the rear of a 14-foot-long bed, then drove three wooden stakes into the ground and strung twine between the stakes for the peas to climb on. As the peas grew taller, I added another rung of twine. Sometimes they needed a little help finding the string and I'd give them a nudge in the right direction.

Still, it's not enough. The freshly harvested peas look pretty at the bottom of a mixing bowl. But we want more. Not all the plants grew so tall and healthy. I'm not sure why. I did not do anything to the soil when I planted the peas. Maybe they'd like a little compost. Next year we'll just have to plant more. Or perhaps a fall crop?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I'll Take Those Three Ibuprofins

Whoever said gardening was easy?

It might not be immediately obvious, but getting our front-yard kitchen garden to look like this took the better part of the Memorial Day weekend. By the end of it, we were grilling burgers and hot dogs and sipping our gin-and-tonics, but I was bushed.

First, I harvested about 10 pounds of various mustard greens and turnip greens and Chinese greens from this bed, blanched the greens and packed them for freezing. Then I applied my usual cultivation approach to the bed--working my forked spade all around to loosen the soil, breaking up the surface with my stirrup hoe, stirring in some compost.

We are transitioning to summer. The bed is now planted with two varieties of pickling cucumbers to grow up trellises on the right, Italian marrow squash in the middle, and three types of radishes in two rows on the left.

The larger part of this bed has been lying fallow for the longest time while the onions, inter-planted with radishes on the right, grow tall. But it was finally time to transplant the tomatoes. Here we have Cherokee Purple, Dr. Carolyn and Big Boy, all comfy in their thick layer of straw mulch.

I had planted Tokyo Bekana greens, dill, arugula and lettuce behind the rhubarb, figuring they would tolerate a little shade. Well, I sort of miscalculated how fast and large the rhubarb would grow. It's very happy in its compost-amended bed. So the other plants never did much except go to seed. But I needed to clear them out of the way to prepare the soil and plant okra. (See yesterday's post.)

This bed was the scene of last year's arugula going to seed. I collected quite a load of seed pods. I'm hoping daughter will help me pick through them to collect the seeds. Then more time spent with the forked spade, the stirrup hoe and hauling buckets of compost from the compost pile before planting more tomatoes: Mortgage Lifter and Green Zebra.

I give the individual tomato plants plenty of room to breathe. They're spaced four feet apart. At the next opportunity, I'll install cages made of concrete reinforcing wire. I plan to plant some zinnias in front of the tomatoes--we always like to have some flowers in the garden--and our collection of peppers and Asian eggplant.

Visible in the far rear is the last bed I renovated for the summer. It's now planted with two Roma tomatoes and a large section of sweet potatoes. This is our first year growing sweet potatoes and I'm anxious to see how they perform in this particular bed. It's situated on the north side of the house, but in summer gets sun in the morning and late afternoon.

Yikes...just writing about all this work makes me hungry for another Ibuprofin.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Planting Okra

One of our favorite vegetables is fresh okra and we have a good climate for it here in the District of Columbia. We had a fine crop of Clemson Spineless two years ago and I saved a few seed pods. They've been kicking around the house ever since. At some point it occurred to me to place them with our other seeds in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator.

In other words, I have no idea whether these seeds are still viable. I split the pods open with a paring knife and out they spilled. They had a nice, cushy home inside the pods, now they're moving to a long piece of territory behind the rhubarb plants, freshly turned and amended with compost.

Okra is a tough plant, with origins in Africa. Now we'll see if it can survive my pathetic seed saving techniques.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Weekend Update

Once again attention focused on the farm bill as Congress easily overrode President Bush's veto and moved forward with plans to continue stuffing the pockets of big, influential landowners. There was a skunk at the party, however, as Congress realized that the bill they sent the White House was missing an entire section. Will they have to pass it all over again?

The farm bill designates hundreds of billions of dollars for programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With all that money sloshing around, you'd think the USDA would have plenty to maintain its programming. Yet in various odd and unforeseen ways, the Bush administration seems bent on eliminating programs that promote the public interest.

We recently reported on plans to gut the budget at the National Arboretum, a jewel of a green space here in the nation's capital. Now it emerges that the Bushites also plan to discontinue the federal government's database on agricultural pesticide use.

Anyone--scientists, researchers, public interest groups--wanting to know how much of a certain pesticide is being spewed into the atmosphere could in the past turn to the annual Agriculture Chemical Research Reports. The reports, while hardly the stuff of headline news, have helped show that genetically modified crops that are supposed to help farmers achieve weed-free croplands have actually spawned new types of herbicide-resistant weeds, resulting in more and more chemicals being sprayed onto the land.

Evidence continues to mount on the many ways that pesticides affect humans, including links to cancer and reproductive abnormalities. But apparently the USDA under Bush would just as soon the public not know how industrial agricultural is fouling the environment.

We are counting the days....


The Washington Post this week unleashed a five-part, front-page series on childhood obesity and the news is not good. Kids continue to get fatter at an alarming rate, raising the possibility of an entire generation with a life-span shorter than its parents'.

Even in elementary school, children now suffer high blood pressure, high cholesterol and painful joint conditions; a soaring incidence of type 2 diabetes, once a rarity in pediatricians' offices; even a spike in child gallstones, an ailment once reserved for adults.

What emerges is the picture of a society that has been sleep-walking where its children's health is concerned, acquiescent to a corporate food industry that is just as happy to sell junk to kids for a quick buck. Schools are still plagued with vending machines full of potato chips and sodas, and food advertising directed at children is still dominated by unhealthful products.

The situation is most dire in poor neighborhoods, where the primary source of food often is the corner convenience store. In one particular ward here in the District of Columbia, fully 80 percent of children are overweight. But even in wealthy suburbs, parents have nowhere to turn for help fighting the obesity epidemic.

"There's a huge burden of disease that we can anticipate from the growing obesity in kids," said William H. Dietz, director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "This is a wave that is just moving through the population."

What's missing is any kind of coherent federal policy aimed at the health of our children. The truth is, we've seen this coming for more than forty years and did little about it. Surgeon General Steven Galson calls it "a national catastrophe."


While we're on the subject of obesity, we have this item from our Responsible Food Service department. It's the Baskin-Robbins Heath Shake.

I swear, we are not making this up. The large version of this monster--32 ounces, a full quart--weighs in with 2,310 calories, as much as most adults need in an entire day. A whopping 970 of those calories are fat. In fact, with 64 grams of saturated fat, one "shake" contains more than triple your recommended daily dose. But wait, there's more. Just in case your blood pressure isn't high enough, you also get 1,560 milligrams of sodium or 65 percent of the recommended daily intake for a person consuming 2,000 calories a day.

Needless to say, the ingredient list reads like a chemistry experiment with plenty of high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated coconut oil. So thanks, Baskin-Robbins. We'll be sucking on one of these while we're digesting all the information in the Washington Post series on obesity.


While Americans continue to get fatter, they also waste an astounding amount of food. Would you believe that 27 percent of all the food available for consumption in this country gets thrown in the trash? That's a pound a day for every man, woman and child. Twelve percent of all the trash shipped to landfills is food.

And all that rotting food produces methane, a major greenhouse gas. Some cities, such as San Francisco, are exploring ways to turn wasted food into compost.

The huge portion sizes served at restaurant is partly to blame. But the bulk of uneaten food consists of fresh produce, milk and grain products. Skyrocketing food prices may prove a blessing. Americans may actually start to eat less, and finish everything on their plate.


While the USDA doesn't want us to know how much pesticide is being sprayed on our foods, a Florida company is being accused of using every trick in the book to bring pesticide-tainted peas into the country.

A Florida grand jury indicted importer Fresh King on charges of using fake importers, false invoices and rigged lab tests to evade a pesticide alert on peas imported from Guatemala.

As part of the scheme, according to the indictment, Fresh King stored crates of rotting peas, yams and squash in its warehouse and presented these to U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspectors for destruction when pesticides were detected. Meanwhile, the company had already sold Guatemalan snow peas and sugar snap peas potentially containing traces of methamidophos and chlorothalonil to its clients.

We are so glad to be growing our own peas....


With all the talk of childhood obesity, one school district--Boulder Valley in Colorado--is looking at ways to ditch the junk and start making meals from scratch. Schools officials have hired chef Ann Cooper--founder of "Lunch Lessons" and director of food services for the Berkeley Unified School District--to conduct an evaluation.

“We’re going to be looking at how to reinvent food service by switching to a scratch-cooking environment,” said Leslie Stafford, chief financial officer for the district and co-chairwoman of Boulder Valley’s school food committee. “We would like to move away from processed foods and into serving more whole foods.”

The survey is expected to suggest ways for Boulder Valley to improve student dining by providing fresh meals, buying local ingredients, making facility upgrades and possibly building a central kitchen that delivers meals to a majority of district schools.

“It’s a fairly large overhaul,” Stafford said.

Good luck, and bon appetit....

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Tomatoes in Trenches

A combination of factors resulted in lanky tomato plants this year. It's hard to provide enough sun for the young plants through a window. Ours is east-facing, so they get a blast of sunlight in the morning, then reflected light for part of the afternoon.

This year, though, the weather has been unusually cool and rainy, so the plants have spent more time indoors. Straining to get more sun, they grow taller and spindlier. Now that planting time has finally arrived, I've decided to try a different technique for transplanting them into the garden. Instead of digging a deeper hole to accommodate the taller tomato plants, I'll be planting them in trenches.

I dig a hole about 18 inches long and 8 inches deep. I've placed a plant, still in its pot, inside the hole to give an idea of scale.

Next, add plenty of compost to the trench. The idea is to create a kind of earthen ramp inside the hole, where it's plenty deep at one end to hold the root ball, then grows increasingly shallower toward the leafy end of the plant.

Lay the tomato plant inside the trench so that the topmost leaves have several inches of clearance from the soil surface. Tomatoes have the admirable ability to form roots all along their stems. Covering most of the stem with soil will result in lots of roots.

Cover the length of the plant with a mix of soil and compost, carefully bending the leafy end up and clear of the trench. Tamp the soil down around the plant to eliminate any air pockets. Soak the area with water.

The final step is to mulch around the tomato plant. I like straw. I like the natty look of straw in the garden. I like the fresh farm aroma. This year I'm trying the mulching method Charles H. Wilber describes in his book, How to Grow World Record Tomatoes. Wilber holds the Guiness record for tomato production relying on compost, lots of space between his tomato plants and straw mulch. He's grown plants almost 30 feet high.

Wilber cuts blocks from straw bales and lays them tight one against the other around the tomato plants. A thick layer of mulch holds moisture in the soil and suppresses weeds. Wilber recommends partially rotted straw to help feed the tomatoes.

I don't have any partially rotted bales of straw on hand. I bought two new bales from the farm supply on a trip to Annapolis. I used my fork spade to cut blocks about two inches thick from the end of a bale, and arranged the blocks around the plants in a square. The straw blocks make a tidy garden bed, and the only thing left to do is install the cages I made last year from concrete reinforcing wire.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Freezing Greens

The truth is, we almost always have more food growing in the garden than we can possibly eat at any one time. This is especially true as the temperatures grow warmer. All at once, our pretty little greens--the mustards and Chinese greens especially that we planted back in March--start to grow very tall and begin blooming.

Greens going to seed make a nice display, but it's a bit frustrating because we know the leaves that we had planned on eating will soon be inedible. The trick, I think, is finding a way to preserve the greens, so this year I've been spending my free moments sitting in the garden plucking tat soi plants and mustard green plants individually out of the ground and stripping them of their leaves and preparing them for freezing.

I don't mind this job at all. You sit on your butt and pull slender plants out of the soil and think about nothing in particular. It's another of those meditative acts in the garden that takes you away from your troubles, like composting or counting the holes in ceiling tiles.

The process is fairly simple. Once you've collected a heap of greens, put a pot of water on the stove to boil. Clean the greens thoroughly in the sink, then blanch them for two minutes in boiling water. Remove the greens from the pot and chill them in cold water. Let them sit in a colander a while to drain completely. Now you can pack the blanched greens in freezer bags and store them in the freezer for use later.

I envision these greens being braised at some point with onions and a little vinegar, maybe even some bacon. They could also be used as an ingredient in an egg dish, such as frittata, or in a soup or stew.

The best part about being able to store these greens is relieving some of the guilt I always feel over planting too many.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Kids Make Carrot Salad with Toasted Soy Nuts and Asian Flavors

Here's a lesson in how guacamole turns into carrot salad.

I had every intention of showing the kids in my "food appreciation" classes how to make a classic guacamole. The plan was to use some of the ripe avocados that have been on prominent display at the local Whole Foods lo these past few weeks. But of course when I arrived at the Whole Foods to purchase the ripe avocados--oh, maybe an hour before class was scheduled to begin--that big display of avocados had completely disappeared, replaced by a new display of utterly green and rock-hard avocados usable maybe next week.

Quick! Think of something seasonal, something we can make in less than an hour! I scanned the produce department and my eyes landed on carrots. Carrots have many virtues, one of them being they don't have to be cooked to be good. They also get the kids involved in peeling and grating. So a carrot salad seemed the logical choice.

As the idea of a carrot salad began to take shape, I decided this would also be a good opportunity to find some sort of substitute for the walnuts I normally put in my carrot salad. We don't use nuts at school because of allergies, and I've been talking with the kids lately about things we might use to add a healthful crunch to our dishes that won't send anyone to the hospital. A visit to the bulk section turned up toasted soy nuts. To be honest, I have never used toasted soy nuts before. This was good a time as any.

I had already planned to use lemon in the salad, then started to lean Asian because I like the way lemon and rice vinegar go together. I picked up a bottle of mirin, to add sweetness. And when I arrived at school and scanned the contents of our pantry, I found a wee bit of toasted sesame oil in the cupboard. From there we tentatively improvised our carrot salad dressing, measuring some of this and some of that, and finally tossed it all together.

1 pound carrots, peeled and grated
1/2 cup toasted and salted soy nuts
1/2 cup black raisins
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
2 teaspoons mirin
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon salt

Toss carrots, soy nuts and raisins in a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, lemon juice, rice vinegar, mirin, sesame oil and salt. Pour dressing into carrot mix and toss thoroughly. Serve room temperature or slightly chilled.

Note: Mirin is a classic condiment and seasoning in Japanese cuisine, typically sold in the Asian section of most supermarkets. It is very sweet, and usually contains alcohol. The version we used contains 8 percent alcohol.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Sustainable Seafood--Really?

Here's a dilemma:

On Monday I attended what by any measure was a lavish seafood dinner at BlackSalt restaurant here in the District of Columbia. Owners Jeff and Barbara Black also own Blacks and Addie's restaurants in Bethesda, as well as Black Market Bistro in Garrett Park, MD. They've made a name for themselves with their way with fish and happen to be longtime customers of our farmer friend Brett. I figure anyone who supports Brett's idea of kales and collards and mustard greens is channeling some healthy karma.

This particular seafood dinner was sponsored by the local chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food. The AIWF arranges quite a lot of dinners with local chefs, giving members a chance to explore some of the latest culinary innovations occurring around town. Most of these events I do not attend, but I was intrigued by the idea of a dinner focused on seafood and deeply curious to see how the chef navigated around all the sustainability issues weighing on the seafood industry.

I arrived with friend Larry and right off we were greeted by one of the organizers whose first words were something like, "and all the fish is sustainable, of course." It could not have been more aptly scripted, especially since the Monterey Bay Aquarium just hosted its marathon sustainability conference. The air seemed heavy with "sustainability" concerns.

So imagine my reaction when the very lengthy menu arrived (six courses in all, some with multiple choices--and yes, there was foie gras, too). Monfisk. Red snapper. Big eye tuna. I wasn't sure whether to run or put a bag over my head. Were they really claiming these as "sustainable" fish?

I imagined myself calling the Seafood Watch program for a remote advisory, but I don't carry an electronic device. So I ate, drank wine, joined a very lively food chat, then ate and drank some more. I have a fuzzy recollection of Larry dropping me off later at my door.

It wasn't until this morning that I went online to check the Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute listings for these particular fish. This is what I found:

Red snapper, or in this case "beeliner" snapper or "vermillion" snapper. You really have to know your snappers, because there are so many of them with different names from different parts of the world. The BlackSalt menu reads, "Carolina Beeliner Snapper, Pequillo Pepper-Medjool Date Gastrique." I'm not even sure what that all means. It was tasty, but about this particular fish, Seafood Watch says "AVOID," with this explanation: "Vermilion snapper populations in the U.S. are at low levels due to overfishing."

The Blue Ocean Institute also posts a big red "NO" next to snapper. "Much remains unknown about the impacts of fisheries on snapper populations because management and monitoring is poor to nonexistent. Nonetheless, clear signs indicate that many snapper species are declining."

Monkfish. I've always liked monkfish. They call it the poor man's lobster. Black Salt served monkfish cheeks, something I had never tried before. But I knew I was in troubled waters here. Sure enough, Seafood Watch gives monkfish another big "AVOID," saying, "monkfish populations are thought to be recovering, but concerns remain due to the types of gear used to catch this fish."

Blue Ocean Institute gives a warning sign for monkfish, also because of fishing gear impacts and management issues.

Big Eye Tuna. Tuna is another area where you really have to know which of the many different varieties are in play and whether it is caught in nets, on hooks or with poles--more information than most consumers have time to absorb or sort through. About "big eye," Seafood Watch discusses no less than three different kinds. Apparently "big eye" tuna is okay--"Good Alternative"--if it is caught trolling or with a pole or a hand line. But this fish is something to "AVOID" if its caught using the longline method.

Blue Ocean Institute provides lots of information about tuna and the impacts of various tuna harvesting methods, but does not specifically mention "big eye" tuna.

So which "big eye" was the one I ate?

Who knows?

On its website, BlackSalt bills itself as "Washington’s premier seafood restaurant," saying it is "wholly committed to the sustainability of fish and shellfish stocks worldwide. We constantly strive to source our products from companies and individuals who are like minded," it says. "Through conscientious consumption and education we can all work to protect the invaluable resources that are provided to us by the sea."

The website even directs customers to Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute. "To learn more about sustainable aquaculture and harvesting practices," it says, "please visit one of these affiliate web sites." And there are the links.

So what gives? How do I square what was on the menu Monday with what Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute are telling me when I get home?

What I take away from all this is a big headache. Frankly, I think my friends at the American Institute of Wine and Food need to bone up a little more on seafood sustainability. I'm also a little disappointed that Black Salt does not provide diners like me lots more information about the particular fish it serves, especially in terms of the sustainability questions raised by organizations such as Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute. With so much complicated information abounding, wouldn't a little reassurance right on the menu be appropriate? Or, in the case of entertaining a group like AIWF, perhaps the chef could pay a visit to the tasting room for a little chat?

Who knows, maybe everything I ate at BlackSalt on Monday was sustainably harvested and I just don't know it. But it's so disappointing that nobody at this level of the food service industry seems to be on the same page or talking the same language around seafood. With our oceans in critical condition, that's grounds for being sad and confused.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Peas & Beans: Progress Report

Our row of pea plants has come up lush and strong with many pods that are just beginning to swell. Capturing the image with a camera is not so easy. Perhaps you can make out one of the pods just to the left of center.

The fava beans made a dense patch of tall and incredibly architectural foliage. This being our first year planting favas, I had no idea. They produce many clusters of white flowers shaped almost like butterflies with their wings folded. To enhance the effect, each flower has a big black spot on it, like an eyeball.

The cranberry beans seam to be happy, even though spring in the District of Columbia this year has been cooler and wetter than usual. These are planted in the aborted spinach bed. We don't let our vegetable beds sit vacant for long, just add some more compost and away we go with the next crop.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Weekend Update--Local Agriculture

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, farmers markets all around the District of Columbia made their ritual spring appearance yesterday. The sudden profusion of local food opportunities brought to mind a recent essay by chef Dan Barber in the New York Times raising the possibility of local farms gaining a competitive advantage over industrial agriculture because of the spiking price of fuel.

With diesel more than $4 per gallon, Barber's thinking goes, locally produced lettuce will start to look cheap compared to the stuff trucked in 3,000 miles from California. Of course, we can't replace all that food at farmers markets. It could hardly be fuel efficient for individual farmers to all be driving their trucks hither and yon on Saturday mornings, dropping off crates of bok choy here and kohlrabi there. So what Barber envisions is "a system of well-coordinated regional farm networks, each suited to the food it can best grow."

"Farmers organized into marketing networks that can promote their common brands (like the Organic Valley Family of Farms in the Midwest) can ease the economic and ecological burden of food production and transportation," Barber writes. "They can also distribute their products to new markets, including poor communities that have relied mainly on food from convenience stores."

Ah, it's a grand vision. We who advocate local food, who subscribe to a CSA, who have our milk delivered from a local dairy, who frequent the farmers market and even grow our own produce--we are easily swept away by grandiose dreams of environmentally-friendly, community-minded agriculture. Then we visit the newly-opened farmers market down the street and are quickly brought back to earth.

This particular market first opened last year. It is situated in a highly desirable demographic area of upwardly-mobile, urban 20- and 30-somethings. Yet the spring opening was pretty underwhelming. There weren't more than a handful of vendors. There weren't many customers. The goods for sale looked sparse, and some of the items seemed to point up what I see as the extreme disconnect between these urban farmers markets and the average cook. For instance, who, exactly, is shopping for pea shoots at $9 a pound?

All of this will probably change, of course, when the tomatoes and summer squash, the brighly colored peppers and multiple varieties of eggplant, come into season. If this year is anything like last year, people will be lining up to bag their Brandywines and Green Zebras. But that precisely is one of the shortcomings of the local food system we have that makes is so difficult for me to embrace the vision of a food system painted by chef Barber as something that will actually happen any time soon.

When all is said and done, local agriculture--as much as we love and support it--still represents just a tiny fraction of the food required to feed this country. Most farmers markets are open only a few months out of the year, and then for only a few hours during the week. Most Americans do not have easy access to locally produced food, nor are they ready to swallow the prices that local farmers so often charge. And for the record, efforts to provide fresh produce to under-served and needy areas right here in the District of Columbia have been tried and failed. The people weren't buying. The farmers markets in poor neighborhoods closed.

Okay, let's say we move past farmers markets to "regional farm networks." Where do all the farms come from? Are we talking about farms on the land that used to be farmland but has since been paved over for housing developments and Jiffy Lubes and WalMarts? Or are we talking about the mega-farms currently engaged in growing commodity crops such as corn and wheat and soybeans converting to growing diversified fields of cabbage, beets and sweet potatoes?

And just what will these farm networks be providing in winter? Will we see hothouses springing up all over the landscape? Will we all be building are own cold cellars, fermenting our own sauerkraut, canning our own green beans and apple sauce?

Somehow, I don't see Americans buying into this voluntarily. Barber thinks that if only we could get consumers to think of spending their food dollars for "nutrient value" rather than just quantity, wholesome local produce would catch fire. Somehow, I don't see 100 years of conditioning by the corporate food juggernaut being so easily overturned by a cry for "nutrient value."

No, you'll have to excuse me for sounding like a cynic. This system of bad agriculture and bad food that we are saddled with has been in the making for a long time. It is firmly entrenched. It owns our federal government, and holds sway over every legislature in every state. Undoing it is going to be no easy task, and not something our current culture is ready to sign up for.

But there is the sound of heavy footsteps coming. Those fuel prices Barber mentioned could portend big changes. There are plenty of suburban lawns that could be turned into vegetable factories. Perhaps what Barber didn't want to say is that the day may not be too far off when growing food close to home isn't so much a choice, but a necessity. Maybe we should start getting ready.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Roasted Vegetables with Thyme

If you have a friend who knows how to turn out a pan of perfectly roasted vegetables, that is a friend to stick close to and learn from.

My friend Shelley fits the description perfectly. She's awfully generous about having us over to dinner. She doesn't sweat bullets over the food and frequently the vegetables are simply placed in a pan in the oven to cook themselves.

But oh, they are divine. Many times I tried to duplicate them without much success. Then it occurred to me that while my roasted vegetables seemed to come out of the oven mostly dry and lifeless, it might be because I was cooking them on a baking sheet rather than in a casserole. I tried roasting them in a tall-sided Pyrex casserole and finally achieved a very different result: roasted vegetables that were tender and moist, the way we've been enjoying them for so many years at Shelley's.

It seems that the extra inch or two of glass separating the vegetables from the scorching heat of the oven makes all the difference. So my first recommendation is, if you want tender, moist roasted vegetables do it in a casserole, not on a baking sheet. (There is another school of thought about slow-roasting on a baking sheet at much lower temperatures, but that's a story for another time.)

These are vegetables to be approached casually. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Then peel two parsnips and two carrots. Cut them on a sharp angle into pieces about 3/8-inch thick. Next, cut an onion into eight wedges, then carefully remove the skin and the rough parts from both ends, but leaving the wedges intact. Trim the top off a fennel bulb and slice it from top to bottom into 1/4-inch pieces. Smash but don't peel two garlic cloves.

Place all the vegetables in a large bowl and toss with 2 tablespoons extra-vigin olive oil and 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves (a teaspoon or so of dried thyme works as well) and season with coarse salt. Toss everything together, then turn out the vegetables into a rectangular Pyrex casserole. Drizzle a tablespoon or two of Vermouth or dry white wine over the vegetables, then place in the oven and bake, uncovered, for about 45 minutes, stirring the vegetables once or twice.

Don't be afraid to pour in some more Vermouth or wine if the vegetables become dry. They are done when cooked through and tender to your taste. They would be perfect next to a roasted chicken or just about any kind of grilled meat.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Too Much Beef

Devora Kimelman-Block has a problem some of us might like to take on: more beef than she can handle.

Kimelman-Block operates a meat trade out of Takoma Park, MD, that specializes in grass-fed, kosher meats. Why kosher? Because "Jews should not have to choose between eating according to their values and keeping kosher," declares her website.

But in the process of gathering kosher beef and lamb for her business, Kol Foods, Kimelman-Block produces quite a lot of non-kosher meat that she is busy trying to market to non-kosher families and also for the Hilal trade. Thus, The Slow Cook received some e-mails recently.

"I live on the border of Takoma Park and Silver Spring. I don't have a store. About once a month I get an order of organic, grassfed, local beef or lamb," Kimelman-Block writes. "I know the family farmer well. I'd like to make it available to others since I know that it is hard to find at bulk prices and I know many people are concerned with their family's health and the health of the environment."

Then Kimelman-Block explains how a surplus of meat arises. "As a biproduct of making kosher meats available, I get even more (much more) non-kosher meat. And that is what I am really having trouble selling. I can't create enough kosher meats to meet the demand because I have to sell so much non-kosher meat to do so (which is very risky financially for me)."

Kimelman-Block does not raise the beef and lamb herself. This is done mostly on Content Farm in Rocky Ridge, Maryland, and similar local family farms in southern Pennsylvania. The animals are all grass-fed without hormones or antibiotics. They are taken George Ruppersberger and Sons in Baltimore to be slaughtered and USDA inspected. The kosher-bound meat is transported to Shaul's Kosher Place in Silver Spring to be Kashered and butchered under the supervision of the Va'ad Harabanim of Greater Washington/Rabbinical Council .

Kimelman-Block says a typical box of beef contains 23-25 pounds of frozen mixed cuts, individually labeled and wrapped for freezer storage. The next order of beef is scheduled to arrive May 29, with mixed cuts priced at $9 per pound and hamburger at $6.50/lb.

Check the Kol Foods website for details.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Kids Make Fava & Pea Salad with Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette

Sometimes I am completely surprised by what the kids in my "food appreciation" classes find delicious. I wasn't sure at all about this particular dish--a salad of fava beans, peas and asparagus--because it is just so darn green. In addition, I was betting the kids had never heard of fava beans and might very well reject them, even though they are among my favorite foods.

In fact, there were several different elements in this lesson competing for attention. First was some background on favas, since they are the original old world bean, unlike virtually every other bean in the world, which traces its lineage back to the Americas. There is also the strange little casing from which the fava must be liberated before it can be consumed.

We also had asparagus spears that needed to be cut in a decorative fashion for our salad. And then came the matter of a vinaigrette that starts with roasted garlic. For this I introduced the kids to parchment paper, an easily overlooked but extremely handy kitchen supply that gives rise to its own cooking technique: oven steaming. I showed the kids how to slice the top off a whole head of garlic, drizzle it with olive oil, then wrap it in parchment paper, and again in aluminum foil for roasting in the oven.

I've always purchased my favas frozen at the local Latin store. The tender, sweet bean is encased in a tough shell. Defrost the beans in a pot of boiling water, drain and chill in cold water. If you make a slit at one end of the shell with a paring knife, the bean slides right out. One of the students preferred prying the shell open with his fingers. To each his own.

I now find shelled favas in the frozen section of the local Whole Foods. This eliminates a lot of work. For the salad, we found that 1 1/2 cups each (about 8 ounces) of favas and frozen peas, plus 1 pound of fresh asparagus trimmed and cut on an angle into 1/2-inch pieces, then cooked until tender, made enough for at least a dozen snack-size portions. Cut this recipe in half to make four adult-sized dinner portions.

To defrost the favas and peas, we simply combined them in a bowl and covered them with hot water for a minute or two.

Roast the garlic in its parchment-foil packet ahead of time in a 350-degree oven for one hour, then give it a chance to cool. When it comes time to make the vinaigrette, squeeze the garlic like toothpaste out of its paper skin into a mixing bowl. Kids love the smell of roasted garlic, but they weren't quite sure what to make of the squishy, caramelized puree that emerged.

"Ew!" they exclaimed. "It looks like poop!"

When roasted like this, garlic is completely transformed--it loses all its agressive tendencies and becomes very mild, even sweet.

Use a whisk to blend 1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar and a drop or two of extra-virgin olive oil into the garlic puree. When the oil is completely incorporated, mix in another 1/3 cup. Season with salt to taste. At this point, I would normally add about 1/2 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped. But we don't do nuts at school because of allergies. One alternative might be the toasted roasted soy beans you sometimes find in the bulk section. One of the students suggested water chestnuts to give the salad a little crunch.

Toss the salad with vinaigrette, chopped parsley, some crumbled Feta cheese and serve at room temperature. The kids gave this dish a big thumbs-up. It would make an excellent side for a spring picnic.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Incredible Cycling Garden Women

Picture three young women getting on their bicycles and pedaling from the District of Columbia to Montreal and back to visit urban food gardens and other young people caught up in the movement to take back our agriculture.

They call themselves Women's Garden Cycles--Liz Tylander, Kat Schiffler, Lara Sheets--and we are only too lucky that they took a video camera and some sound equipment on their bicycle adventure because they have turned a farming travelogue into an extraordinary film about local food. Last night they drew upwards of 100 like-minded and youthful gardeners to the Letelier Theater in Georgetown for a rousing screening of their bicycle epic, complete with free Maryland beer, peanuts out of Mason jars and hand-crafted pizza.

Having spent several months in a bicycle seat at one point in another lifetime, I was immediately in love with the idea of this incredible adventure. I wanted to go, too. The genius of their idea was to drop in on community gardens and small farm operations along their route to take the pulse of this unfolding revolution in food production, the movement away from toxic industrial agriculture toward an embrace of sustainable, earth-friendly, community-minded farming.

Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City, Boston, Vermont, Montreal--wherever you look there are people of every hue and ethnic background with their hands in the soil, using every possible means to bring forth a bounty of healthful fruits and vegetables to share with neighbors. There are long rows of broccoli in the country, tomatoes climbing out of plastic buckets in the city. There are tumble-down sheds turned into milking barns and urban rooftops transformed into tangles of squashes and peppers and eggplants.

Bill McKibben, author, teacher and local food advocate, makes a prominent appearance in the film. McKibben notes that certain young people, after spending a small fortune on a college education, are seeking nothing more than a few acres on which to grow vegetables and raise a few goats. Parents may not approve, but this generation is ready to forego the enticements of our consumer culture in order to grasp a transformative moment.

These are the new American farmers, and against their enthusiasm--their eagerness to recapture a sense of self-reliance, stewardship and community-- the old agriculture--with its polluting methods, unhealthy products and de-humanizing corporate culture--truly looks like a sad relic from another time.

Perhaps the best news is that the movement has taken root in the nation's capitol as well. We are seeing more farmers bringing their produce to market. New farmers markets are sprouting all the time. And efforts like the 7th Street Garden--where young, dynamic urban farmers link up with a neighborhood to raise wholesome, chemical-free vegetables--are showing us what is possible, the way forward. Last night's crowd--full of energy, determination and muscle--looked for all the world like the vanguard of a new era.

It's a very exciting time to be a gardener.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Great Nor'easter

A huge low pressure system roared up the Atlantic Coast yesterday, dumping buckets of rain and lashing our area with 30-mph winds. We've had six inches of rain since last Thursday. Trees are toppling, and some of our garden plants are have trouble staying upright.

The winds last night felled these pea plants from their trellis.

Some of the fava beans were in a prone position as well. Rhubarb stalks were snapped. A very tall garlic plant also lost its footing.

This reminds me of a storm a couple of years ago that flattened a bed of very tall amaranth and sunflowers.

Nature will do as she pleases, and there's nothing to be done about it.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Weekend Update

For the first time we can ever recall, we find ourselves in agreement with George Bush on a matter of urgent federal policy, namely, Bush's promise to veto Congress' most recent version of the Farm Bill.

Bush wants to draw the line on the billions of dollars in subsidies Congress would like to continue doling out to the country's wealthiest farmers. We suspect what's really at work here is Bush trolling for money to fund his endless war in Iraq. Nevertheless, on the subject of cutting handouts to agri-business, we concur.

While we're on the subject, lets address who it is we are talking about as the recipients of all these billions. Because it is not the farmers who are growing our cabbages and carrots and milking a few cows and raising a few pigs. In fact, there is no room in the federal subsidy scheme for that kind of farming. What we are really talking about are giant landowners who plant thousands of acres of specific crops such as corn or soybeans, wheat,, rice or cotton. They are part of a mutant agriculture that benefits most of all certain large corporations that take those crops and process them into feed, either to fatten animals in industrial meat centers or to fatten humans.

To call the lords of this mutant agriculture "farmers" is really a perversion of the term. Henceforth, we will refer to them as agri-meisters.

Crop subsidies in the distant past were paid to farmers to prevent them from overproducing and thus support market prices for certain crops. But that all changed in the 1970s under Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, who turned the policy on its head and urged farmers to plant as much as possible. Of course that created a glut of things like corn and soybeans, which became ever so cheap to feed to cows and pigs and chickens in factory settings and emerged as the ingredients of choice in virtually every kind of processed food on the supermarket shelf.

After almost 40 years of Butz's subsidies, we find that cheap food just makes animals and humans fat and unhealthy. But it sure makes lots of money for companies like Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto and their ilk.

Anything that can be done to undo the federal subsidy system and return it to its original function of stabilizing prices is a good thing. Unfortunately, there are so many other vital programs wrapped up in the Farm Bill--child nutrition, school lunch, food aid, land conservation--that delaying passage of the bill only hurts those who are most needy.

Sounds like business as usual for our federal government, no?


Here's a little pipe dream of ours: We remove our troops from the fiasco in Iraq and move them to Burma, where we take out the military junta that is preventing international food aid from reaching hundreds of thousands of cyclone victims.

While bodies are beginning to choke Burma's waterways, food shipments have been seized. Resources were even being diverted from disaster relief to completing a voter referendum that would only tighten the junta's grip over the country. With no food or clean drinking water, thousands of Burmese face imminent death.

Has there ever been a better excuse to intervene?


The cyclone in Burma drove the world's food crisis off the front page temporarily. But skyrocketing food prices continue to change the way people live around the globe.

In Cambodia, for instance, it is feared that thousands of destitute students may stop going to school because in 30 days rice stocks will run out, meaning the end of free breakfasts.

The free breakfast program, started eight years ago in Cambodia's poorest schools, has been a huge hit, attracting many children who otherwise would not come to school. Teachers love it, because well-fed pupils are more attentive and eager to learn.

The imminent suspension of rice supplies is particularly paradoxical for the children who each day walk or ride their bicycles through miles of neatly delineated rice paddies on their way to school. Rice is plentiful in Cambodia, and the country has been a net exporter for the past decade. But it is becoming less and less affordable for the very people who grow it. In a 2006 survey, well before the spike in food prices, 22 percent of Cambodians in rural areas could not meet their own basic food needs.

Said one teacher: "Most of the students come to school for the breakfast."


Escalating food prices are not just a problem for other countries. They are beginning to take a toll in the U.S. as well. Higher prices are putting the squeeze on school lunches around the country, but especially in poorer school districts.

Schools participating in the National School Lunch Program are under a mandate to implement wellness programs that include reducing junk foods and provide healthier alternatives. But the healthier alternatives are becoming more and more expensive. School districts throughout the country are cutting back on fruits and vegetables as costs continue to soar.

Schools are finding they can't keep up with the program's nutritional guidelines. Often the healthier items aren't available, and more recently, to increase revenues, some schools are looking for ways to bring back hot ticket items—highly processed junk sold outside the NSLP by private food and beverage companies.

New Jersey recently boosted by 40 cents the amount schools can charge for lunches. But even with the increase, food service directors are adjusting menus to make sure they can make their budgets and still meet nutritional requirements.

School districts increasingly are turning to the federal food commodities program to reduce costs. State officials said about 20 to 25 percent of school cafeteria food is from the commodity program, and as demand increases, they worry there won't be as many commodities to distribute next year. Congress determines the funding entitlements, but food costs determine what that money buys.

"Even if the money stays the same, it's going to buy less food," said Phillip Gambutti, chief of the state's Department of Agriculture food distribution program.


With prices skyrocketing, more and more consumers are dropping organics and going back to conventional foods to save a buck, according to Newsweek.

Newsweek reports that after about 20 years of steady sales growth in organics, shoppers are beginning to cut back. One survey found that only 27 percent of shoppers thought that organic food was worth the price, even though they agreed that it was probably healthier.

"I miss it terribly," said one Ohio woman who no longer shops at Whole Foods. "But let's face it, I just can't afford it anymore. Food everywhere is just so expensive lately. It's insane."

With corn, wheat and rice at record prices, there's even more financial incentive for farmers to grow conventionally. The rising price of organic grain is making it tough to feed all those free-range chickens and synthetic-hormone-free cows. Some organic farmers in the Northeast are even converting back to chemically enhanced crops to boost the bottom line.

"Organics is becoming the private school of food," says Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, which tracks organic-food production. "It's great if you can afford it. But pricing it out of people's reach is not a strategy for expansion."

Some organic growers are trying to hold the line on prices, but not necessarily succeeding. Stonyfield Farm, the huge organic dairy, has been hit by five cost increases from its milk producers in the past five years, but has raised its prices only twice.

"Despite the fact that we were once again hit with a $3 million milk cost increase this month, we do not feel that we can pass along another price increase," CEO Gary Hirshberg told Newsweek. "Any further price increase will only hurt our mission to continue growing organic consumption."

This makes us ever so glad for our own kitchen garden....


With all this talk about farmers cashing in on the spiking price of corn and other commodity crops, we sometimes forget that being a small-scale farmer can be tough. But here to remind us is Zoe Bradbury, who's been writing "Diary of a Young Farmer" in Edible Portland magazine.

In the latest installment, Bradbury describes how she has run out of cash after buying equipment, seeds and soil amendments. With no hope of any income until the first spring crops come in, she pays a visit to local USDA Farm Service Agency to apply for a loan.

First bad news: She can't get a loan for an irrigation system because her farm technically is on leased land. Second bad news: the loan she can receive would be based on the value of her crops calculated according to statewide commodity prices. Unfortunately, those prices are nowhere near what she can actually charge for her designer vegetables, meaning she is only entitled to a pittance. But the only way she can support her argument is to show receipts for the last three years. This is her first year in business.

"I felt very small. I wondered where people like me were supposed to go if the United States Department of Agriculture couldn’t help us," Bradbury writes. "A few days ago I got a one-year 0% interest credit card offer in the mail – and for the first time ever, I didn’t toss it into the recycling bin."


Finally, a ray of sunshine. We received an e-mail recently from Ona Bacus, assistant coordinator of the Operation Frontline program at the Capital Area Foodbank here in the District of Columbia. We are delighted to hear that Ona is widening the circle.

"As a coordinator of cooking and nutrition courses for low-income kids and adults in DC, I love reading about the classes you lead at your daughter’s school," Ona writes. "As a fellow local, 'happy chicken' foodie, I look forward to your weekly wrap ups and your reflections on current food policy issues. Your blog also introduced me to other food blogs I love now, and finally has inspired me to start my own! My blog will be focused on my work with Operation Frontline and our cooking and nutrition classes around the city here in DC. It’s still in its beginning stages, but I hope you will check it out when you have a free moment:

Notice the shout out to you in my first post!"

Thanks, Ona. Congratulations on having someone making a video about Operation Frontline and welcome to the blogosphere.

Bon appetit....

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Tomatoes in Transit

The tomato seedlings have been thriving in their seed cells, set in an east-facing window. Being at least three weeks past the average last frost date here in the District of Columbia, it's time to find the seedlings a new home and prepare them for transplanting into the garden.

I planted four varieties: Cherokee Purple, my favorite, Mortgage Lifter, an heirloom yellow cherry tomato named Dr. Carolyn and the classic Italian sauce tomato, Roma.

To remove them from the seed cells, I use a spoon, working around the edges of the plant and plunging deep under the roots. Lift the plant with the entire ball of soil and move to a pot.
Seeds started indoors should be moved to a sunny spot as soon as they sprout. It's hard to get them all the sunlight they crave. Often they grow long and lanky. If they get too "leggy," it's time to think of alternate light sources, or they could flop over and fail.

Tomatoes have a valuable attribute: they will grow roots all along the stem. I choose a tall pot and bury the seedling deep inside--all the way to the bottom--so that it has plenty of buried stem from which to grow new roots.

Fill the new pot with organic potting soil. Better to put the camera down and use your free hand to hold the plant upright and centered while pouring in the new soil.

Tamp the soil down firmly to eliminate air pockets.

I cut labels out of used yogurt containers.

Once they are potted, the plants can be watered in. I added a bit of fish emulsion to give them a nice first meal in their new homes. Now I'll start them "hardening off," or exposing them to the outdoors a little more each day until they are fully acclimated. Then they can go in the ground and start making tomatoes.

Hard to believe summer is almost here already.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Kids Make Strawberry Shortcake

We are working our way through spring's seasonal fruits and vegetables in our "food appreciation" classes. Kids love engaging the food with their hands and strawberry shortcake gives them plenty to do, such as cutting the butter into the flour for our biscuits. You can do this with knives or forks, but we like doing it with our fingers, squeezing butter and flour together and squeezing, squeezing, squeezing with very quick movements until the finished product looks almost like sand.

The recipe we use for our biscuits is 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon sugar, 3 teaspoons baking powder and 1 teaspoon salt. Whisk all that together in a large bowl, then cut in 6 tablepoons of cold butter, cut into little pieces. Add 3/4 cups milk and stir until everything is just incorporated. This makes 16 smaller-than-usual biscuits

A secret to great biscuits is to work the dough as little as possible, so they come out light and flaky. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and push it together with your hands a couple of times until it holds its shape. Then roll it out to a thickness of 1 inch or 3/4 inch, depending on how many biscuits you want to make and how thick.

I forgot to bring my metal biscuit cutter. A sharp edge helps when cutting out biscuits. The edges are not so prone to stick together, helping the biscuit to rise more easily. We improvised, using a sturdy, paper hot drink cup with the bottom cut out.

While the biscuits were baking in a 450-degree oven, we trimmed about 1 pound strawberries and cut them into small pieces, then mashed them with 1 tablespoon sugar. The sugar draws out the juices.

We also made whipped cream, 1 cup cream sweetened with 1 tablespoon sugar. You can also flavor it with a little vanilla extract if you like. We try to avoid refined sugar when we can. You can cut back on the sugar in the biscuits, the strawberries and the whipped cream for this dessert. Otherwise, this is a rare treat, not something to serve every night.

Once the biscuits were cooled, we cut them in half. You can also pry them apart with a fork. Spoon some strawberries over the bottom, then top with whipped cream and cover with the other half of the biscuit at a jaunty angle.

And did I mention, kids love to eat strawberry shortcake as well?