Thursday, July 31, 2008

Black Radish

At the end of a row of radishes I planted a variety that's new for me this year: black radish. I had no idea what to expect. Would they really turn out black?

I never eat as many radishes as I plant. Many of them just keep growing until they are sprouting flowers. I usually just leave them be. The blue, four-petaled flowers brighten up the garden and give the pollinators something to feed on. When the radishes are completely spent, they just go into the compost pile.

That seemed to be the fate of these black radishes. Except when I pulled one up, it wasn't the gnarly, misshapen, woody radish I've come to expect. No, these were almost perfectly round. Not black, exactly, but a dark brown. And when I tried one, it wasn't woody or hollow or any of those things. It was dense and creamy and delicious, with a pleasant bite--not like that scorching heat you often get from an old radish.

The black radishes grow to the size of a tennis ball and almost perfectly round. I pick one, wash it with the hose and bring it inside where I cut it into wedges, like an apple. I then carve the skin away with a peeling knife and dip the wedge into my salt cellar. This comes very close to a zero maintenance radish. And in the middle of summer!

French breakfast radishes are a delight to look at and eat when they are monitored and picked in their prime. But this fall I'll be planting more black radishes as well.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

First Okra

In case there was any doubt that vegetables fresh out of the garden beat the pants off the store-bought kind, we harvested our first okra the other day and made a big batch of smothered okra. This is our go-to recipe for okra flavor and simplicity. I don't know how you improve upon it: sauteed onions and green bell pepper, sliced okra, fresh white corn off the cob and diced tomatoes. Season with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. Who thought of it, where all the flavor comes from, I'm not sure, but this dish is pure magic. A wedge of fresh buttermilk corn bread would be the perfect accompaniment--and a complete meal. (If you are a meat eater, you might add a spoonful of bacon grease to the skillet to pick the flavor up a notch, but it is completely unnecessary.)

With its long, pointy ridged pods, okra is one of the stranger vegetables in the garden. It's in the mallow family, related to cotton and hibiscus. Completely separate from the pods and broad, notched leaves, okra produces these beautiful yellow flowers that open in the morning and close again at night.

I often find myself crawling around on all fours in the garden--weeding, trimming edges, harvesting. A good place to pause is next to the okra bed where you can sit in the cool of the morning and contemplate an okra flower. Often there's a bee or wasp climbing inside, looking for breakfast. And who wouldn't? It looks like the perfect place to hang out.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Food Prices: Is There Really Anything to Debate?

Got an e-mail from a PR type today wanting me to post something about a debate over on the Economist magazine's website, the proposition being: "There is an upside for humanity in the rise of food prices."

To which my initial response would have to be, YOU'RE BLEEPING KIDDING, RIGHT?

Only a group of over-fed economists with too much time on their hands could actually consider this a question worthy of debate. We can't take them seriously, otherwise we'd have to charge them with crimes against humanity. But this is precisely the kind of question that the Economist--which views an ever- expanding economy as a kind of white man's birthright--can actually discuss with a straight face.

I suppose you could say that rising food prices are a good thing, just as you could say the end of subsistence farming is a good thing, or that the end of family farms is a good thing, or that the commoditization of basic food stuffs is a good thing, or that putting the world's supply of food into a handful of huge international corporations is a good thing, or that fouling the air and water with artificial fertilizers and feedlot runoff is a good thing, or that denying farmers the right to save seeds is a good thing, or that replacing natural foods with industrially processed foods is a good thing, or that turning food crops into motor fuel is a good thing, or that allowing agribusiness to dictate government policy is a good thing, or that bankrupting Third World nations and turning them into food importers instead of self-sufficient food growers is a good thing.

All this and more has come to pass under the guise of freeing world trade, growing the international economy and improving the global standard of living. Increasingly it becomes clear that the only people who really stand to benefit are the ones who think the question is worthy of debate.

So I guess that would be a, No.

Photo: Woman making mud pies in Haiti in response to skyrocketing food prices.

Cajun Pickles

Sometimes you look at a recipe and instantly know something isn't right.

Take this one for Cajun pickles from a certain book on pickling. At the top of the recipe it says the yield will be four quarts of pickles. But only a few lines lower down it calls for a gallon of water for the brine. A gallon consists of four quarts, right? So if you fill your four quart jars with a gallon of brine, where is there room left for the pickles?

Another issue I have with most pickling recipes is their method of describing quantities for the main ingredient. Often you will see something like, "50 Kirby cucumbers, about the size of your index finger." Well, what if you don't have cucumbers exactly that size? What if you have some that are that size, but others that aren't? What if the only cucumbers you have are the size of your arm? It would make much more sense to give a weight for the cucumbers involved.

Also in this particular recipe there are terms that cry out for definition. For instance, it calls for 1 tablespoon of "Cajun seasoning." Any idea what that is? I was determined not to buy any new spices for these pickles because I already have a closet full. But I checked at the store. The Paul Prudhomme and Emeril spice blends list identical ingredients: salt, paprika, dried onion and garlic. That's easy: I have plenty of salt, paprika, garlic salt and onion powder.

The recipe also calls for "Italian seasoning." Any guesses there? A quick Google search leads to the McCormick blend, which contains marjoram, thyme, rosemary, savory, sage, oregano and basil. Between my spice cabinet and my herb garden I have all of those. But to simplify things, and because these pickles have so many flavors going on already, I paired this down to dried oregano, marjoram and thyme.

Finally, the recipe also includes "pickling spice." I addressed the issue of "pickling spice" in a previous post. This ingredient covers the waterfront and can pretty much include almost anything you want, from mustard and fennel seed to juniper berries, bay leaf and cinnamon. If you think you may have call to use it in the future, you might purchase a pre-made blend at the store. McCormick makes one. Or, make your own using your personal preferences.

In the end, using a little more than 3 pounds of cucumbers I cut the original Cajun pickle recipe by 75 percent and still had enough brine to cover three quarts of pickles. Go figure.

For 3 pounds cucumbers:

1/4 cup pickling salt (or additive-free sea salt)
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
1 quart (4 cups) cold water
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 tsp garlic salt
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon chili powder (I used passilla pepper)
pinch cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 1/2 teaspoon pickling spice
3 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed and minced
3 pounds cucumbers, whole, halved or quartered
3 thin slices red onion
1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded, deveined and cut into thin strips
3 cherry peppers, cut in half, seeded and deveined

Mix the salt, vinegar and water in a non-reactive bowl. Stir until salt is completely dissolved. Add the remaining dry ingredients and mix.

Pack the cucumbers, onion, jalapeno and cherry peppers into three clean quart jars. Pour brine into jars so that cucumbers are completely covered. (If you run out of brine, just top off the jars with a little water, leaving about 1/2 inch headroom.) Screw on lids, tip jars to distribute spices and allow to ferment at room temperature for at least three days, then refrigerate another five days before eating. Alternatively, if you like your pickles more "sour," allow them to ferment longer before placing them in the refrigerator. They should keep several weeks chilled.

Note: The strongest heat in peppers resides in the seeds and the interior veins. I use a paring knife or a melon baller to remove all of this material before placing the peppers in the pickling jars.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Onion Harvest

How do you know when your onions are ready to harvest?

The foliage falls to the ground and turns brown.

These are the onions we harvested last week. This is our first year growing onions, so I qualify only as an onion novice. We were hoping for bigger onions. The red ones were particularly small--only the size of golf balls. When I mentioned this to Drew Norman on a recent visit to his farm in Baltimore County, he immediately asked, "Did you plant them from seeds or from sets?"

After doing a bit more reading on onions, I've learned that onions are much more likely to thrive if started from seed rather than from sets, the sets being in essence a baby onion. Why this is so I'm still not sure. Growing from seeds would pose a bit of difficulty for us, since the seeds would be planted in dead of winter and we don't have a greenhouse. We'll have to think on that one.

In addition, I think our onions could have used more sun. Onions are divided into two categories: long-day, for northern areas of the country, and short-day for the South. Here in the District of Columbia we are a bit on the edge, but a check of my catalogue for Southern Exposure Seed (based near Charlottesville, VA) indicates that long-day onions are recommended for our region.

Our east-facing garden gets an average of six to seven hours of sun. As the season wore on, our rows of onions were a bit shaded by surrounding tomato plants. They might also have done better with additional side dressings of compost. Onions apparently do like to feed.

Still, we are happy to have our own ready supply of onions from the garden. I am following directions to cure them by leaving them in a well-ventilated spot out of direct sun for a couple of weeks, or until they develop a tough skins. The onions should not be touching each other. For long-term storage, you can hang the onions in an old pair of nylon stockings, tying off each onions so they are all held in their own individual pouches.

The only remaining question would be, Where do you get the old nylons?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Weekend Update

With hundreds of people nationwide made ill and millions of dollars worth of tomato crop ruined, you may be wondering how it happens that our federal government is unable to trace the source of a salmonella outbreak.

In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration still isn't sure where the disease originated. After initially implicating tomatoes, it has now cleared tomatoes--we think--and says the culprit more likely is jalapenos, perhaps originating somewhere in Mexico.

Turns out we might have had a produce tracking system in place years ago but the corporate food interests succeeded--with some help from the Bush White House--in getting the idea shelved.

The Associated Press reports that industry groups complained that a bioterrorism proposal that would have required detailed tracking of food was opposed by food industry groups as too burdensome. Business groups met at least 10 times with the White House between March 2003 and March 2004, as the FDA regulations were under debate. Food industry lobbyists successfully blunted proposals using arguments familiar in other regulatory debates: The government's plans would saddle business with unnecessary and costly regulations.

"The FDA's strong proposed bioterrorism rules were significantly watered down before they became final," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. The private advocacy group obtained the White House meeting records under the Freedom of Information Act and provided them to the AP.

Participants in the meetings included companies and trade groups up and down the food chain, including Altria Group Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc., when Altria was Kraft's parent; The Kroger Co.; Safeway Inc.; ConAgra Foods Inc.; The Procter & Gamble Co.; the American Forest and Paper Association; the Polystyrene Packaging Council; the Glass Packaging Institute; the Cocoa Merchants' Association of America; the World Shipping Council; and the Food Marketing Institute.

"If the FDA had been given the resources and authority years ago that it requested to solve these kinds of problems, I think we would have solved this already," said William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner.

Now lawmakers from Florida are proposing that tax payers compensate tomato growers for their losses.

Monsanto, the giant chemical and seed company that also makes bovine growth hormone, is at it again. Now it has succeeded in getting Ohio to ban labels on milk containers that would tell consumers when the growth hormone might be present in the milk they buy.

The Organic Trade Organization recently filed suit against Ohio's director of agriculture to reverse a regulation that prohibits labeling stating when milk is free of the bovine growth hormone. Monsanto finds itself on the losing side of a consumer trend rejecting milk from cows treated with the hormone. The company has failed to persuade federal regulators to ban labels that indicate when milk is free of the hormone. Monsanto is now lobbying state officials with mixed results.

A similar labeling prohibition enacted by the agriculture director in Pennsylvania, for instance, was overturned earlier this year by the state's governor after an outpouring of protests from consumers and dairy farmers. But now Kansas, where Monsanto initially was turned back, is taking another look and Utah is considering a law similar to Ohio's, reports Sam Fromartz at the Chews Wise blog.

And then there was a study we recently noted in which researchers found that injecting cows with growth hormone could eliminate a significant portion of greenhouse gases by making dairies more efficient. But Scientific American disputes the findings, pointing out that the researchers involved are on the Monsanto payroll.

The study was conducted with a scientist, Roger Cady, who is also the growth hormone technical project manager for Monsanto. In addition, the lead scientist on the study, nutritional biochemist Dale Bauman of Cornell University, has been a paid consultant for Monsanto since the 1980s, though he declined to disclose how much the company has paid him over the years. He insists that Monsanto did not influence his decision to spend as much as $10,000 in university funds for this study.

Scientific American says the more important issue is dairy cow feed, typically a mix of corn and soy meal where growth hormone is used. The FDA already has disallowed any claims that cows injected with growth hormone can produce more milk from the same amount of feed. Researchers in Australia, meanwhile, have found that greenhouse emissions are reduced 50 percent when cows graze on grass.


Wherever you look, government agents are in the pocket of Big Ag.

In Minnesota, for instance, legislators last year approved legislation that would provide grants to farmers who want to improve the efficiency of their operations. It was thought that the funds--called Livestock Investment Grants--would be directed toward small and even sustainably-minded farmers. But now that the state's agriculture department has got hold of it, it's become clear that the funds are going to benefit big confinement operations that have pollution problems.

The grant criteria developed by state agriculture officials favors operations with more animals. Advocates for rural development say that's just the opposite of what's needed: more farmers working the land in a sustainable fashion.

"The bottom line is, according to the (agriculture department's) profile, operations which expand dramatically are more likely to receive help through the Livestock Investment Grants program," writes Brian DeVore on the Minnesota Environmental Partnership blog."These proposals will likely be the largest grant requests, thus quickly draining the program’s budget. This makes second class citizens of family farmers using innovative, low cost, low-input systems."


In case you needed any, here's more evidence why soft drinks need to be eliminated from public schools. Researchers in Texas have found that high-fructose corn syrup, the preferred sweetener in sodas and other processed foods, quickly becomes fat after being ingested.

Apparently, high fructose corn syrup manages to bypass the usual controls that the liver applies to other sweeteners, such as glucose. “It’s basically sneaking into the rock concert through the fence,” said Elizabeth Parks, associate professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. "The bottom line of this study is that fructose very quickly gets made into fat in the body.”

For the study, six people were given three different drinks. In one test, the breakfast drink was 100 percent glucose. In the second test, they drank half glucose and half fructose; and in the third, they drank 25 percent glucose and 75 percent fructose. The drinks were given at random, and neither the study subjects nor the evaluators were aware who was drinking what. The subjects ate a regular lunch about four hours later.

The researchers found that lipogenesis, the process by which sugars are turned into body fat, increased significantly when the study subjects drank the drinks with fructose. When fructose was given at breakfast, the body was more likely to store the fats eaten at lunch.


If one Los Angeles city council member has her way, it's not just the soft drinks but all kinds of fast food that would be banned in a 32-square-mile area of the city.

Council Member Jan Perry is spearheading legislation that would ban new fast-food restaurants like McDonald's and KFC from opening in an area that already is home to some 400 fast-food restaurants suspected of contributing to a 30 percent obesity rate among adults who live there. The national obesity rate for adults is 25.6 percent.

"It's a good idea," particularly for children, local resident Rafael Escobar, 69, told the Wall Street Journal as he bit into a McDonald's sausage breakfast.

Local lawmakers compared the proposed ban on fast food joints to similar restrictions on liquor sales. But the restaurant industry isn't buying it. "We have a fundamental problem with government stepping in and treating restaurants as if they are engaged in activity that is at the root of the obesity epidemic," says Jot Condie, president of the California Restaurant Association.

But the trend seems to be swinging toward healthier restaurant eating. In New York City, a law kicked in earlier this year requiring fast-food restaurants to post calorie counts on the main menu right above the counter. San Francisco plans to implement a similar regulation later this year. In both cities, the restaurant industry is suing to try to block the calorie-disclosure rules.

Bon appetit....

Saturday, July 26, 2008

First Green Beans

I've been watching the beans swell in the bean patch and calculating when the time might be ripe for a harvest. The moment arrived yesterday with friends coming for dinner. I was amazed to see what a bounty my little plants had provided.

These are the Italian Romanette variety, a wide and flat bush bean I prefer for its gentle texture and meaty flavor. They always remind me of the year I spent in Switzerland when I was a youth. My host mother would cook a great heap of these beans in the pressure cooker until they were nearly falling apart and weeping with flavor.

My own plants--really just a small patch in a far away bed in the garden--were so heavy with fruit, they literally had fallen to the ground. I harvested close to two pounds in no time at all and began planning a prominent spot for them on the menu.

When our friends arrived we had a fresh guacamole displayed in our molcajete with blue corn tortilla chips. We also composed a relish assortment of pickled beets and pickled green tomatoes along with some of our latest deli-style dills and the refrigerator pickles that are now perfectly brined.

Dinner began with a platter of squash carpaccio with fresh Maryland goat cheese. I grilled a flank steak very simply with our favorite dry rub and served that with our own potatoes, browned and tossed with caramelized onions, and the green beans, cooked in salted water until tender, then tossed with sweet butter and finely chopped mint.

As usual, my wife presented a stunning dessert: cherry granita parfaits layered with almond-infused whipped cream and drizzled with aged Balsamic vinegar. We could not have ordered a more pleasant summer evening on the back deck.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Great Big Vegetable Challenge: The Book

A package arrived from Great Britain yesterday and look what was inside: the cooking adventures of our friends Charlotte and Freddie at The Great Big Vegetable Challenge blog, in three-dimensional book form.

It's been great fun watching the blog unfold with A to Z recipes aimed at getting children to partake of the vegetable kingdom. Charlotte must be ecstatic to see this brilliant concept materialize in book form, complete with recipes and photographs.

As Charlotte explains in the introduction, dinner with Freddie frequently had been the nightly battle that so many parents experience. But instead of allowing the food fight to degenerate into a complete meltdown, Charlotte decided to turn mealtime into an adventure, with Freddie helping to devise clever dishes and then grading the results. As many adults discover, bringing kids into the process often succeeds where all the arguing and haranguing fail.

I would also like to point out that the recipe for slow-cooked green beans was borrowed from yours truly, and that Freddie rated it 8 points out of 10. The book's other recipes are all worthy of consideration. We are not talking Jello molds with smiley faces or other dumbed-down kiddy stuff. Charlotte and Freddie did their homework to come up with real food made with serious ingredients. But you might want to start with "Veggie Lipsmackers," which translates as vegetable and fruit juice popsickles.

Meanwhile, as if to underscore the point, here's a picture of daughter last night preparing to run away from home after rejecting a dinner offering quickly assembled from the contents of the refrigerator: hamburger, broccoli and sweet potato salad. Daughter normally likes broccoli, but last night it was, "I never liked broccoli!" Her plan was to seek asylum at a friend's house, but she turned back when she realized she would have to cross the street--something she does not yet do on her own.

Apparently "The Great Big Veg Challenge" is still looking for a U.S. publisher. Meanwhile, you can find it at Amazon UK, along with a more complete description. And you can visit the original blog.

Congratulations, Charlotte and Freddie! What's next?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Mustard Pickles

We have spared no effort in our relentless search for the world's best pickles. Meaning, we pulled every book with a pickling recipe from our cookbook library and dove in.

This particular preparation for mustard pickles involves no fermentation or anything even resembling a fermentation, unless you count the soaking overnight in hot water. It comes from a book titled, "Pickled: Preserving a World of Tastes and Traditions," by Lucy Norris. And here you will find more pickling recipes than you could possibly ever use. Some are quite tantalizing. One calls for solarizing cucumbers in a brine with a slice of rye bread. Another is heavy with cajun spices. And there's an intriguing stuffed cucumber kimchi.

I am dubious about some of the quantities called for in the original mustard pickle recipe. It calls for "27 to 29 small Kirby cumbers, about 7 pounds" to fill four pints. Four pints? I'd like to see someone try to stuff seven pounds of cucumber into seven pint jars. My experience calls for something closer to one pound for each pint jar. The original formula also calls for 4 cups of distilled white vinegar for the brine. I halved the recipe and still had plenty of brine left over.

So I am giving my adjusted version:

2 pounds cucumbers, each about 4 inches long (or cut to fit)
4 cups water
2 cups distilled white vinegar
1/8 cup pickling salt, or additive-free sea salt
1 teaspoon powdered mustard
1/8 teaspoon Splenda
1/8 cup sugar

Wash cucumbers, slice into halves, then place in a non-reactive bowl. Bring water to a boil, pour over cucumbers and let sit overnight.

Sterilize two pint canning jars and lids according to manufacturer's instructions. Meanwhile, mix vinegar, salt, mustard, Splenda and sugar. Pack cucumbers into hot jars, then cover with brine, leaving at least 1/4 inch headroom. Screw on lids and process in boiling water for 12 minutes according to manufacturer's instructions.

Store for at least one week before eating. Refrigerate after opening jars. Otherwise, the sealed jars should keep for many months.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Two-Stroke Madness

It's 90 degrees, the polar ice caps are melting and gasoline is more than $4 a gallon. But apparently that's not enough to stop the Landscapers from Hell.

And what is this man chasing with his giant leaf blower? Perhaps you can see the little trail of grass clippings blown up against the granite curb.

Does anyone remember when we used a broom to deal with a few errant blades of grass?

This was the scene this afternoon as my wife and I strolled through the National Police Memorial, one of the newer parks here in the District of Columbia located across from the giant National Building Museum (formerly The Pension Building) at 400 F Street NW. It's also the site of an entrance to the Metro's Judiciary Square station on the Red Line. So there were plenty of people around taking in the sights.

The landscaping has come a long way in just a few years, with shade trees forming a pleasant and inviting alley on a hot summer day. Except for the blaring of the leaf-blowers. Not one but two grounds crewmen were engaged in the grass blade chase and the racket was almost unbearable. Need we add that two-stroke engines are among the most polluting on the planet?

Note to whomever is responsible for maintenance at the National Police Memorial: We know where you can get a good broom. Note to Mayor Fenty: Isn't it high time for some restrictions on two-stroke engines?

Squash Carpaccio

My wife does not like cooked squash at all--it's a textural thing. So we've found ways to eat squash raw. This is our version of a squash carpaccio, using the Italian striped squash from the garden, sliced very thinly, along with a fresh Maryland goat cheese and a chiffonade of our own basil.

Season with extra-virgin olive oil and a drizzle of rice wine vinegar, coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper.

We made dinner of it along with our famous beet and tomato salad (I'm thinking beet and watermelon would work as well, no?) and a salad of brown rice, diced red and yellow bell pepper, artichoke hearts and hearts of palm.

This is a cool, nutritious summer dinner using just about everything we are harvesting in the garden at the moment (except for all those cucumbers). And there's hardly any cooking involved, which keeps the heat down in the kitchen.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Plate of leftover salads: beet and tomatoes, corn salad.

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Shopping: none

We never tire of having a container of our beet salad in the refrigerator. Fresh beets from the garden, tomatoes and red onion seasoned with extra-virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar is big on flavor and utterly refreshing, especially chilled. Next to that is a simple corn salad with many of the same ingredients, plus cilantro. I could easily add to that some of the jalapeno growing in the garden. We've had some in fresh salsa and the flavor is explosive--so fruity and aromatic, and no salmonella.

Oak Leaf Pickles

A number of pickling recipes call for leaves of some sort in the brine--grape leaves, oak leaves, cherry leaves, black currant leaves--on the theory that the leaves make the pickles more crisp.

I have no reason to doubt this is true, so I include the leaves. For these fermented dill pickles, Helen Witty, in "Fancy Pantry," calls for grape leaves. I don't have any grape leaves. But I have an oak tree in front of my house. So I used oak leaves.

This is one of those very simple pickling operations where you cover cucumbers with a salt brine and let them sit in a bucket or a crock for a period of time until they've fermented to your preferred point of doneness. Witty calls these "full sours" because they ferment completely over a period of two or three weeks, depending on the ambient temperature. She recommends checking them daily and skimming away an scum that may form on top of the brine. Testing the pickles periodically is a good idea, because they can very quickly go south if you aren't watching.

Here's Witty's list of ingredients:

24 pickling cucumbers 4 to 6 inches long
8 large fresh grape leaves
large bunch of fresh dill with seeds heads
8 to 12 cloves garlic
6 quarts water
1 cup less 2 tablespoons pickling salt
3 tablespoons mixed pickling spice

I made half the recipe. In fact, I only had nine cucumbers on hand, but I went ahead and halved everything else. That would mean somewhat less than a half cup of salt (I used unadulterated sea salt) for three quarts of water, which is very close to my usual ratio.

Pickling spice? You might be surprised how many different recipes there are for pickling spice. McCormick makes a pickling blend. I decided to try my own:

2 teaspoons yellow mustard seed
1 teaspoon dill seed
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon allspice berries
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon cloves
2 bay leaves, broken in half

I used about half of this and saved the rest.

There is nothing complicated about these pickles. First, scrub the cucumbers and set aside. Prepare the brine by combining the water, salt and pickling spices in a large saucepan. Bring the mix to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Let the brine cool to room temperature (or chill the saucepan in an ice bath).

Layer the grape (or oak, or cherry) leaves, the cucumbers, dill and garlic cloves in a heavy plastic bucket or crock, then cover with the pickling brine. The brine should cover the cucumbers by at least a couple of inches. Cover the cucumbers with a ceramic plate that just fits inside the container and weigh it down with a smaller plastic container filled with water. The cucumbers need to be submerged in the brine at all times to prevent spoilage.

After a few days, check on the cucumbers to make sure they are submerged. Thereafter, check on them daily, tasting occasionally and wiping away any scum that might form, until the pickles are completely sour to your liking.

Now you can eat the pickles straight from the crock or refrigerate them to slow any further fermentation. I'm making mine for canning. Put the cucumbers (whole or divided) with some of the garlic and dill into clean, wide-mouth canning jars. Strain the brine, bring it to a boil and simmer for 2 minutes. Then fill the jars, leaving about 1/4-inch head space. Remove any air bubbles, cover with new canning lids according to manufacturer's instructions and process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Bread & Butter Pickles

You may be wondering what that milky liquid is my cucumber slices are floating in. That would be "pickling lime," something I drove all the way to the farm supply in Annapolis for a couple of years ago after spending half a day on the telephone trying to find some closer to the District of Columbia.

Apparently, pickling is not a huge pastime here in the nation's capitol. But we are making pickles as fast as we can, trying to keep up with the cucumber plants in our kitchen garden about a mile from the White House.

Do not confuse pickling lime with pickling salt. Pickling lime, also known as "hydrated lime" or "slaked lime," is used to increase crispness. The last time we used it was to make our pickled green tomatoes last fall. It mixes readily with water, but never seems to dissolve completely. You have to stir it occasionally. If you can't find pickling lime in the local hardware store or farm supply, you can easily get it online, along with pickling salt.

My memory of bread and butter pickles is eating them straight from the jar out of the refrigerator, like some kind of candy thief, or in the approved method: with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at lunch. They were a rare pleasure--I don't know why, perhaps because they were always hidden behind other stuff in the fridge--and stood out because they were cut into rounds with those funny little crinkles. We tried cutting ours with crinkles on the mandoline, but the slices weren't thick enough and tended to fall apart.

This recipe from "Fancy Pantry," by Helen Witty, is supposed to yield six pints. I cut it in half and still wound up with five pints, and used every bit of brine filling the jars at the end.

12 firm pickling cucumbers, 5 to 6 inches long
4 quarts cool water
1 cup pickline lime
1 1/2 quarts cider vinegar
5 to 6 cups sugar, to taste
1 tabespoon pickling salt, or other non-iodized salt
1 tablespoon mustard seed
1 1/2 teaspoons celery seed
1 teasoon turmeric
1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

Scrub cucumbers well and slice cross-wise 1/4-inch thick (I sliced mine closer to 3/8-inch).

Measure water into large bowl (not aluminum) and stir in pickling lime. Add sliced cucumbers, stir, cover and set aside overnight or up to 24 hours, stirring occasionally.

Drain cucumbers in a colander, then return them to rinsed-out bowl and rinse them at least three times in cold water, stirring them to eliminate all traces of pickling lime. Drain again and cover with cool water to a depth of an inch or two. Set aside for 3 hours.

Combine vinegar, sugar, salt, mustard see, celery seed, turmeric, peppercorns, cloves and ground ginger in a saucepan (not aluminum). Heat to boiling, stirring until sugar dissolves, then boil uncovered for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, drain cucumbers well and return them to bowl. When syrup has boiled 5 minutes, pour it over the cucumber slices. Stir slices gently, then push them under the surface, cover the bowl and set aside overnight.

Transfer cucumbers and syrup to a preserving pan (I used my enameled Dutch oven) and cook everything, covered, over medium-high heat, stirring gently occasionally, until the cucumbers are translucent, about 40 minutes.

Using tongs arrange the pickle slices in 6 hot, clean pint canning jars, leaving about 1/2 inch of headspace. Divide the spices from the syrup among the jars, then add boiling-hot syrup to reach 1/4 inch from the rims. Remove any air bubbles (poking around with a chop stick, for instance) and add more syrup, if necessary. Seal the jars with new two-piece canning lids according to manufacturer's directions and process for 10 minutes in a boiling-water bath. Cool, label and store the jars.

Let the pickles mellow for a month, then chill them before serving.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Weekend Update

Whole Foods has issued new "quality guidelines" for farmed seafood and the retailer seems determined to keep farmed Atlantic salmon on the menu no matter what anyone else says.

Seafood sustainability organizations such as Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute urge consumers to avoid farmed Atlantic salmon (the only kind commercially available) for several reasons, including the pollution caused by salmon farming operations, the potential for farmed salmon to escape into the wild and the tons of other seafood salmon need to be fed because they are carnivorous.

Whole Foods addresses each point--sort of . First, Whole Foods says it will not accept farmed fish treated with growth hormones or antibiotics. Parasiticides must be phased out within five years. The retailer will not purchase genetically modified or cloned fish. Whole Foods says its goal is to "reduce pressure on wild fish" and will move toward a goal of "no greater than" one fish in as feed for every fish produced.

Producers sourcing to Whole Foods must "work to minimize" pollution as well as to "minimize" the transfer of parasites into the wild. And salmon farmers selling to Whole Foods must demonstrate an "exceptional effort in preventing escapes...."

Basically, Whole Foods says it will give preference to salmon farms that are making an effort to address the issues raised by sustainability organizations. It's not insisting that all of these problems be solved. In other words the new guidelines, while drawn in excruciating detail, still have a hole big enough to sail a boatload of farmed salmon through.

(Note: Tens of thousands of farmed salmon recently escaped from their pens into and inlet in British Columbia. A Canadian study, meanwhile, has found that salmon farms are severely depleting wild salmon stocks.)

Give Whole Foods some credit for making an effort where so many retailers are doing nothing. It will be interesting to see what Monterey Bay Aquarium, Blue Ocean Institute, Greenpeace and the others have to say. Will they?


While the skyrocketing price of corn and soybeans is helping to create a worldwide food crisis, it's also driving U.S. catfish farms out of business.

Farming catfish was once a major industry in states such as Mississippi. But catfish farmers now are literally draining their ponds and closing shop.

“It’s a dead business,” said John Dillard, who pioneered the commercial farming of catfish in the late 1960s. Last year Dillard & Company raised 11 million fish. Next year it will raise none. People can eat imported fish, Dillard told the New York Times--just as they use imported oil.

Corn and soybeans, used as feed for catfish, have tripled in price in the last three years--corn largely because of our federal government's policy of turning grain into ethanol to fuel automobiles. Soy is the number one source of oils used in processed foods.

Along with all the catfish farms go the jobs in area processing plants and restaurants that rely on local catfish. In 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, catfish farming was a $462 million industry, far exceeding any other American farm-raised fish. The industry employed more than 10,000 people at its peak, almost all in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas.

No more. "The industry is going to implode," said one executive.


Meanwhile, there will be plenty of corn and soybean bi-product flowing down the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico this year. Scientists report that the "dead zone" in the Gulf, caused by fertilizer runoff from the nation's heartland, could be the biggest on record.

Fertilizers cause algae blooms that rob the water of oxygen, making it uninhabitable for fish and other life forms. The area in question is expected to be about the size of New Jersey, or nearly 9,000 square miles.

Runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous is expected to be especially severe this year because of unprecedented spring flooding in the Midwest and because more cropland is under cultivation to raise more corn for--you guessed it--ethanol to fuel automobiles.


More and more people are seeking milk produced without bovine growth hormones. In fact, the issue of injecting cows with hormones to produce more milk, and whether dairymen can indicate on milk bottles that they do not use growth hormones, has become a hot topic around the country.

Monsanto, which produces the hormones, would just as soon prohibit dairies from even mentioning growth hormones. Now comes a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences saying it would be so much better for the environment if all dairy cows were given growth hormones. Injecting one million cows, researchers concluded, would produce so much extra milk it would be like taking 400,000 automobiles off the road.

The reasoning is that large scale cow milk production requires the use of huge amounts of land, water and feed resources. Making cows more efficient milk producers would mean we wouldn't need so many of them, reducing the dairy industry's carbon footprint. Of course, that doesn't really speak to the quality of the milk. Cows on growth hormones are usually kept indoors eating corn and soybeans...

Hey, wait a minute. Isn't that the same stuff that's driving catfish farms out of business and creating a worldwide food crisis as well as a huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico?

We're confused....


Officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have declared that it's safe again to eat tomatoes. But they still haven't figured out what caused a nationwide salmonella outbreak.

These are the same people who were having such a hard time getting a grip on tainted foods entering the country. Remember the toxic pet food from China? But despite its reputation as the agency that can't shoot straight, the guys at the top thought they deserved a bonus.

Federal law makers were fuming when they learned that 28 senior FDA executives took in a combined $1 million in bonuses last year, pushing their pay above that of members of Congress, federal judges - and even some cabinet secretaries.

Some $48,000 in a cash award and retention bonus went to an associate commissioner whose plan to overhaul FDA field labs was rejected by Congress as poorly thought-out.

Another $41,000 went to the director of the office of criminal investigations, pushing his total income to enforce one statute to $208,000 - more than the director of the FBI makes.

But topping it all was the bonus that went to the person who was hired to reform the bonus system: $58,000.

"What we are talking about here is the need to have highly experienced, highly capable technical experts that, without which, the country would suffer," said FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach.

Oh, that make us feel so much better.

Bon appetit....

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Minding My Worms

My worms seem to have their own seasons. In winter they get slow and lazy. Then one day in spring I lift the cover off their "worm hotel" and they've eaten all their newspaper bedding.

We started these worms about three years ago. They did so well, I took some to my daughter's charter school and built a colony there. Good thing, too, because one summer we went away on vacation and left the worms outside. When we returned, the worms were nowhere to be found--fried, apparently, with a few carcasses around the edges of the lid giving witness to how they apparently had tried to flee.

In winter when the outdoor compost pile is frozen solid we devote our kitchen scraps to the worms. A good-size worm colony will eat all our food scraps and turn them into a terrific fertilizer. When they eat through the newspaper bedding, I pull up a chair and start shredding more newspaper.

In fact, the newspaper is not so much bedding as a cover to the wormscape below where we place the food scraps. We use a small garden tool to lift the newspaper and find a fresh spot for scraps. Replacing the newspaper is a purely meditative act. I enjoy a few minutes thinking of nothing, just tearing strips of paper. I've found that the paper tears only in one direction--from the top of the page down. Trying to tear the paper from side to side just makes a mess. I suppose this has to do with the warp and weave of how newsprint in made. I now have a fairly efficient system for cutting whole pages of the newspaper in half, then tearing the paper into thin strips.

Normally I would not take the "worm hotel" outside as you see in this photo. The worms don't like bright light. As I lay the paper strips down, I give them a spritz of water to moisten. I build the paper about and inch high. A thick layer helps keep fruit flies away.

Then its back inside for the worms to munch on their little piles of potato skins and apple cored and melon rinds. They really like melon rinds. Maybe that's what they're waiting for all winter long.

Sweet & Sour Pickles

These pickles turn out softer than I would normally like, but they're full of flavor from the vinegar, sugar and pickling spices. Getting to the canning part takes two days of first soaking in a salt brine, then rinsing and soaking in the pickling brine.

The recipe comes from "Putting Food By," by Jane Greene, Ruth Hertzberg and Beatrice Vaughan. As the name implies, it covers the waterfront where canning and preserving are concerned with 400 pages of recipes and instructions. It's a good reference to own, and the paperback edition is just the right size to stash in a corner of your kitchen.

I made just a fraction of this recipe, in keeping with our current theme of trying several different pickling methods with the (growing) number of cucumbers we have on hand at the moment.

To make 8 pints:

32 cucumbers, about 4 inches long
1 cup salt
4 quarts water
4 cups vinegar
1 cup sugar
1/2 tablespoon whole cloves
1/2 tablespoon mustard seed
1/2 tablespoon celery seed
1/2 tablespoon peppercorns

Dissolve the salt and water in a crock or enamelware kettle (I used a food grade plastic bucket). Wash the cucumbers, put them in the container and cover with the salt brine. (My cumbers were a bit larger than the ones called for here. I quartered the cucumbers first.) Cover and let stand 24 hours, then drain.

Cover cucumbers with cold water and let stand 20 minutes, then drain. If rinse water is too salty, repeat. Meanwhile, combine vinegar, sugar and spices in a sauce pan and bring to a boil. Boil 5 minutes, then remove from heat. Thoroughly wash the crock or kettle (or bucket). Cut cucumbers in halves or quarters and put into clean crock. Bring syrup back to a boil, then pour it through a strainer over the cucumbers, removing the spices. Cover cucumbers and let stand 24 hours.

Drain syrup off cucumbers, reserve the liquid. Pack cucumbers upright in clean, hot pint jars. In a saucepan, bring syrup back to a boil, then ladle it over the jarred cucumbers, leaving 1/2-inch headroom. Place lids on jars and process the jars in 180-degree (Fahrenheit) water bath for 10 minutes. Remove jars to cool.

The processed pickles will keep for months in the pantry. Refrigerate them after opening.

Friday, July 18, 2008


Fried eggs with sauteed beet greens.

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Shopping: none

I can hardly think of a vegetable easier or more delectable then freshly harvested beet greens. I'd been eyeing one particular Franken-beet in our garden. It was unexpectedly huge, some kind of mutant, with greens towering over the rest of its mates. I was weeding in the area this morning and decided it was time to see what this fellow was all about. I pulled it up, and it looked like a giant, red parsnip. No accounting for a beet like that. But nothing goes to waste around the garden. If it's edible, it will be eaten.

I brought the greens inside, let them soak in the kitchen sink to refresh, then sauteed the leaves very simply in the cast iron skillet with extra-virgin olive oil, coarse salt and just the water left on the leaves after lifting them out of the sink. You could season the greens with a little white wine vinegar, or even cider vinegar.

Meanwhile, I melted a spoonful of butter from South Mountain Creamery in the non-stick skillet and fried a couple of eggs from our farmer friend Brett. (These would be the ones that require the five-mile drive to the Chevy Chase farmers market). Dust the eggs and greens with some grated Pecorino cheese. I dabbed some red Sriracha pepper sauce on there as well.

I'll be tasting this for the rest of the afternoon...

Martha's Refrigerator Pickles

I didn't select this recipe from Martha Stewart because I'm particularly in love with it. In fact, this is the first time I've made it. But it does represent a certain variety of pickling--brining the cukes and then refrigerating. There's no canning or long life involved.

As you can see, I used cucumbers that had grown somewhat beyond the usual pickling size. You can tell from the yellowing skins. You have to be vigilant where cucumbers are concerned or they'll grow to football size before you know it.

This recipe calls for two pounds of pickling cucumbers. I halved it, which yielded one quart-size jar. Enough for now, I'd say. We're still collecting cucumbers for other recipes. But here's the original recipe as published in Martha Stewart Living.

2 pounds kirby cucumbers

3 tablespoons coarse salt

2 cups distilled white vinegar

1 tablespoon dill seed

4 garlic cloves

2 bunches fresh dill, coarsely chopped

Wash the cucumbers, then cut them into 1/2-inch round. Transfer the slices to a colander set in a large bowl. Toss them well with the salt and refrigerate one hour.

Rinse the cucumbers well and drain. Pat them dry with paper towels and transfer to a large bowl.

Bring 3 cups water, the vinegar, dill seed and garlic to a boil in a sauce pan. Reduce heat and simmer 4 minutes, then remove from heat and allow mixture to cool for about 10 minutes.

Add chopped dill to cucumber slices and toss together. Pour in brine. Let cool completely--about 30 minutes--then transfer mixture to airtight containers and refrigerate at least 1 week before eating. The pickles will last another three weeks.

If you make these pickles, do let us know how they turn out.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Thank You, Nurse

The Slow Cook has been named to something called "100 Food Blogs to Inspire Your Healthy Eating," sponsored by Nursing School

I am ashamed to say I had never heard of this organization before. It sounds like a place you go to find a nursing school. Among other benefits, however, is a listing of food blogs that leads you here.

But wait. Listen to what they say about The Slow Cook under the "Green Eating" category: "While this food blog isn’t all about super healthy choices, it does encourage readers to reject fast food and more processed foods by taking back control of the food we eat and the pace of our own lives."

What? Not super healthy? I wonder if they're referring to my wife's uncontrolable cheese nachos habit. Or if they just don't like unhomogenized whole milk, grass-fed Delmonico steaks or home-made pork sausage. I wonder if these nurses are some of those "Diet Dictocrats" Sally Fallon talks about. (There's a separate category for raw and macrobiotic. Yuck.)

Anyway, we are thrilled to see The Slow Cook included with some of our favorite food blogging pals, Bonnie at Ethicurean, Charlotte at Great Big Vegetable Challenge, Christa at Calendula and Concrete, Beth at Figs, Bay, Wine, Joanna at Joanna's Food.

Pickles Done

After six days fermenting in a salt brine with garlic and dill my cucumber pickles were done. As you can see, they've lost they're bright green color and have turned a sort of olive. I had been tasting them almost daily since I put them in the brine, and they'd reached just the point doneness I was looking for: pickled, but still crisp.

Quick, I transferred the pickles from the bucket in which they'd been fermenting and moved them to a quart-size plastic container and put them in the refrigerator.

They won't last like this forever. The bacteria, although slowed to a crawl, will continue to munch on them. But for the moment, they are delicious and just a bit crunchy, the kind of pickle you would find at the best Jewish delicatessen. I'm glad we made a small batch, because we will have no problem finishing these pickles before they can go bad. In fact, we are eating some just about every day.

While we are on the subject of pickles, I got out my pickles file and found an article from Washingtonian magazine in which the writer was trying to recreate the pickles once served at Duke Ziebart's restaurant. Duke's was the kind of place where everyone in Washington went to be seen. The food was fairly simple. Apparently the pickles were memorable. Turns out, the recipe the author settled on was very much like the one I used here, except that it included some vinegar in the brine. So when I transferred the pickles into the plastic container, I added a few tablespoons of white wine vinegar, which does mellow the saltiness a little and adds some fruity flavor.

We still have lots of cucumbers and more on the way. In the coming days, we'll be trying a number of different pickling methods. Refrigerator pickles, canned pickles, bread and butter pickles. Do you have any favorite pickling recipes you'd like to share?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Cantaloupe with yogurt and honey.

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Shopping: none

We love these no-cook summer meals. The melon comes from the local Harris Teeter's and has been chilling in the fridge, getting riper and nibbled on the last couple of days.

The yogurt is plain and whole, with all the fat, baby. Among the many different brands at Whole Foods, the one I currently like best is from Seven Stars Farm in Phoenixville, PA. It's got all the live cultures in there, but none of the powdered milks and gelatins and stabilizers you find in too many other brands.

Just drizzle a little honey on top. The garnish, by the way, is a sprig of anise hyssop, now in bloom. After you take the picture, sprinkle some of those little flower buds into the yogurt. They're full of sweet anise flavor.

First Beet

A friend came over to talk about teaching food to kids and just to make an impression on the virtues of root vegetables I went out to the garden to see if I couldn't find a beet ready to harvest.

Well, the beets are farther along than I thought. I pulled up a beauty--big and heavy and perfectly formed. I didn't put it on the scale, but I'm guessing it weighed close to a pound.

I couldn't think of a better end for it than our favorite beet, tomato and red onion salad. Prepare your beets in the usual way. Give it a good cleaning. Remove the stems. (I sauteed the greens for a snack. They are delicious.) Either roast the beets slowly in the oven, or cook them in a pot of water. I use a metal trussing skewer to test for doneness. When the skewer pierces the beet easily, it's done.

Set the cooked beets aside to cool. At that point, the skin should slide off very easily. Depending on the size, I usually cut the beets into bite-size wedges. Mix in a bowl with ripe tomato, also cut into wedges, and red onion cut into thin strips. I used our own puny red onions from the garden for this. Add a green herb. I like chives for this, but I think mint or even anise hyssop would work as well. Then toss with some extra-virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar. I also like the idea of a different red-fruited vinegar, such as raspberry vinegar.

Season with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Our beet salad made an easy, cool summer dinner paired with a leftover corn salad from the fridge. When vegetables are this fresh, there's no reason to eat anything else.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Smothered Okra

Our farmer friend Brett sends out occasional notices about what he'll be displaying at the Saturday farmers market. This week it was okra, which immediately got my attention. Hard to believe we are already harvesting okra (my own plants aren't nearly there yet). So I was primed to rush there and get some.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the farmers market this week. I started calculating how much gas I would be using to get there. The market where Brett sets up shop is not any of the ones within walking distance of our house here in the District of Columbia. It's five miles away in Chevy Chase D.C., almost in Maryland. In fact, the Chevy Chase farmers market is not far from the drop-off point where we pick up the food boxes Brett leaves for our winter CSAs.

With gasoline now above $4 per gallon (I know, for much of the world, especially in Europe, this seems laughably cheap--we don't tax gas nearly as much as they do) five miles isn't anything to take lightly anymore. It dawned on me a couple of weeks ago when I ran to the market for some of Brett's free-range eggs that when I included the cost of a two-way trip, one dozen eggs cost me an extra $2. Make that $6 a dozen instead of $4. And that's in a 1997 Toyota Corola that still gets 21 miles to the gallon in the city.

So before I left the house on this particular venture, I sat down and thought, What would my wife have me do? The answer was obvious. A wee bit of okra could not justify driving 10 miles. I made a list, which included a hefty bunch of okra and two dozen eggs. The total came to $14 ($8 for the eggs, $6 for two overflowing pints of okra), plus $2 for gas. Not exactly cheap. But a whole lot more from the farmers market I do not really need, since we are growing so much in our own kitchen garden.

I wonder how many other people now are starting to make similar calculations and wondering whether the trip to their favorite farmers market for a few peaches, or a couple of onions and green beans, or that chocolate croissant, is still worth it. Or maybe they're making the trip and enlarging their purchases?

Anyway, I was happy to have the fresh okra because sister Linda and her oenophile husband Tom were coming to dinner for steaks. For an hors d'oeuvre, we had bruschetta smothered with favas and peas from my visit to One Straw Farm. Then I grilled a couple of porterhouse steaks and served the smothered okra on the side, while Tom poured a couple of different Bordeaux.

This is a very easy dish that delivers big flavor with hardly any seasoning. Slice a Vidalia onion thinly and saute it in extra-virgin olive oil in a large cast-iron skillet along with a green bell pepper cut into medium dice. When the vegetables are soft, add a quart of okra, trimmed and sliced on an angle into half-inch pieces. Then add the kernels sliced from two ears of white corn, plus the contents of a 14-ounce can of diced tomatoes. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cover and simmer until the okra is tender. If the mix looks dry, just add a little water.

Some people complain about okra being slimy. I have never experienced this problem. Maybe they are breeding the sliminess out of okra. I heard one person recently propose that okra only gets slimy when it has been dampened with water. I find this hard to believe. But I could be totally wrong. So keep your okra away from water--until you cook it.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Don't Eat the Marlin

The Monterey Bay Seafood Aqauarium's "Seafood Watch" program has just issued new recommendations for consumers. Among them:

Marlin--blue and striped--has been listed as "avoid." Marlins are in "steep decline."

Atlantic herring and sardines have been downgraded from "best choice" to "good alternative." In the past, these small oily fish, which reproduce rapidly, were great choices for Omega-3 fatty acid in the human diet. But "Seafood Watch" says recent studies indicate fishing for these species is disrupting the sea floor and removing too many fish that marine mammals and seabirds need to survive. (You'll probably still find herring and sardines in your fish oil pills.)

Mid-Atlantic sea scallops have been upgraded from "avoid" to "good alternative." "Seafood Watch" says northern as well as Mid-Atlantic scallops are no longer overfished but "abundant." (Funny, Greenpeace just recenlty advised avoiding scallops from both areas as overfished. But confusion reigns in the seafood industry.)

Do not bother looking for wild-caught salmon from California or Oregan. The fishery was cancelled this year because the salmon have disappeared. No one's sure exactly why. In addition, Environmental Defense has issued a health advisory for wild salmon from Washington State because of PCBs.

New this year: "Seafood Watch" has compiled new recommendations for fish from the Great Lakes and Central U.S.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Is Semi-Organic the Way Forward?

Drew Norman has been growing vegetables organically for 25 years and he's still not sure "organic," as currently defined, is the last word.

I had a chance this week to visit with Drew Norman on the farm he started with wife Joan in White Hall, Maryland, north of Baltimore, when they were hardly more than kids. Norman was just out of agriculture school at the University of Maryland and the reason he chose organic was because the things he was taught at the university just didn't add up for him.

One of his first classes was all about how micro-organisms are the beginning and end of healthy soil. But when he got to learning about growing fruit trees, he said, it was all about spraying pesticides, which of course kill micro-organisms along with a lot of other things.

More recently, his own farm was part of a study that measured soil health. Far ahead of Norman, who relies on cover crops and compost as his primary means of fertility, was another farmer who uses cover crops heavily as well but does not till his soil and applies an herbicide to deal with weeds on his crop rows.

Of course herbicides are an automatic disqualifier for the "organic" label. But Norman says that after 25 years of following the organic rules, he still has only 2.5 percent organic matter in his soil (5 percent is considered optimum.) He also recognizes that his usual farming techniques--plowing cover crops under, building plastic-covered rows, using drip lines for irrigation--involves quite a bit of soil tillage. And in his words, "micro-organisms don't like a lot of tillage."

So what, I asked, does he think is the answer?

Norman, who has 1,400 CSA subscribers this year, along with a hefty wholesale business, answered this way:

"I became an organic farmer to be more environmentally friendly, and 25 years later I find I can be more environmentally friendly by not being 'organic.' " After thinking a minute, he added: "If I were 100 percent CSA? I would probably write my customers a letter telling them why I was going to start using an herbicide on my crops"--meaning a switch over to more cover, less tillage and an increase in organic matter, along with a loss of his "organic" status.

Joan Norman, who handles the business end of the farm, was quick to add: "Of course we would never do anything like that without asking our customers first. Some of them would be absolutely devastated if they thought we were using an herbicide."

I find discussions like this fascinating because they show that the question of how best to farm is far from settled. Organic farmers are expected to work extra hard on behalf of the environment, but at the same time they need to make enough money to stay in business.

Or, as Joan Norman often likes to put it: "Agriculture has to be viable to survive."

For instance, it has always struck me as a bit of a contradiction that so much sheet plastic is used on organic farms (we can get into Canadian peat moss another time). Conventional plastic sheeting is made from petroleum, and it is not biodegradable. Yet Drew Norman swears by it. His crop rows--miles and miles of them crossing 175 acres--are all immaculately mulched with plastic.

"I've been chastised for using plastic because it has its isssues. But my answer to that is, it's cost effective," Norman says. "Everything yields better on plastic."

Mostly, he covers his rows with plastic to conserve water in the soil around the plant roots. The plastic also largely eliminates the need for weeding, a huge labor saver. The benefits contribute significantly to his bottom line--especially when plastic represents a mere 3 percent of his costs.

Blogging about food is great fun. Ranting about food issues is stimulating, and sometimes even results in a worthwhile discussion. But occasionally it's good to visit a farm and hear what real farmers think.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Hidden Pickles

Wouldn't you know it. Just when I was thinking we might never see ripe cucumbers I ran across a bunch of them hiding in the garden.

Cucumbers can be sneaky devils. They don't make a sound. They hide amongst the foliage and if you don't look for them carefully, you won't see them until they're the size of footballs. I got these at just the right moment. The largest is no more than about five inches long. They were way down low where I was trimming the grass along the edge of the cucumber bed. You have to move a few leaves to the side to spot them.

I grow my cucumbers for pickling and there are a couple of issues to consider. First, I don't have many ready to pick yet. I could purchase more at the Whole Foods, but I decided to just use my own and make a small batch. Secondly, my preferred method is to ferment the cucumbers for a deli-style sour pickle. But it's a little warm this time of year. The ideal fermentation temperature is around 68 degrees. I'll just have to find a relatively cool place in the house to stash them.

First I measured enough water to generously cover my pickles and it came to 1 1/2 quarts (six cups). To make "half-sours," I dissolve 3 tablespoons pure sea salt (no additives, or use pickling salt) in the water and pour it into a small plastic food-grade bucket. Add the cucumbers sliced in half lengthwise. Then from the garden I harvested nearly a whole dill plant--the seed head and several branches. I cut these from the stem and added them to the bucket, along with cloves from two heads of our home-grown garlic and about a dozen black peppercorns.

Cover the pickles with a ceramic plate that just fits inside the bucket, and weigh this down with a sealed plastic container filled with water. Cover everything with a clean dish towel to keep the dust out and place the bucket in a dark, cool spot, maybe in the basement.

Check on the pickles in a couple of days. They're done when they taste just right to you, maybe in a week. To stop the fermentation, put the pickles in their brine in the refrigerator. You can also boil the brine to kill the bacteria, then chill it and add the pickles later.

I will be keeping an eye on these and reporting on their progress as time goes by.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Last Fish: Blowup at Sustainable 'Hook'

The concept of a seafood restaurant that serves only sustainably-havested seafood is starting to look not very sustainable.

Chef Barton Seaver rose from neighborhood cook to international prominence by helping to create Hook, a trendy Georgetown eatery that seemed to be the one place where you could reliably order fish and know that it was caught in an earth-friendly manner.

Seaver went to great lengths to seek out sustainably caught fish, to the point of developing personal relationships with small-scale fishermen at ports around the globe. For his devotion to this novel concept--respecting the limits of mother nature, rather than merely plundering in the usual food service industry fashion--Seaver was heaped with awards and accolades and invited to speak at seafood conferences on an international level.

But that all came crashing down just days ago, and in a typically ugly restaurant business fashion. First, the staff allegedly was ready to walk out over a pay dispute at Hook's fledgling sister restaurant Tackle Box, a kind of attempt at an urban lobster shack incongruously washed up on the tony shores of Georgetown. According to the Tackle Box's then-chef Robert Bechtold, the staff at the recently inaugurated restaurant had been shorted one week's pay.

The dispute so angered restaurant owner Jonathan Umbel, according to a report in the Washington City Paper, that he fired four of the restaurant staff on the spot, including Bechtold, who had been imported from Louisiana to develop the Tackle Box's menu, and his sous chef, Roger Lemus.

Bechtold laid low for a while, but then started sending e-mail messages to the press saying, "“Tackle Box in Georgetown is unsustainable to families. After working 6 months for Barton Seaver and giving him every recipie for tackle box, I was let go for asking about the pay for my staff."

The menu Bechtold had developed for the Tackle Box was ditched and quickly replaced by one put together by Seaver. But shortly after this dust-up with Umbel, Seaver let it be known that he was splitting as well. Lawyers apparently had to be called in to work out details of the breakup, and Umbel comes off looking like a complete ass, a sort of caricature of the greedy, self-important restaurant overlord.

Seaver, who got his chef-ing chops at Cafe St.-Ex, a popular environment-friendly bistro just down the street from us, has not said much, but one senses utter disgust with the way restaurants are managed in the high-flying Georgetown scene.

In fact, Seaver's flameout as the poster boy for sustainable seafood has a rather saint-like aura about it. The Washington Post quoted him as saying he has no intention of leaving Washington and might just devote more time to D.C. Central Kitchen, a charity operation that specializes in turning restuarant leftovers into food for the needy.

"It was great to have a stage to formulate a lot of these ideas about sustainability and drive the business" at Hook, Seaver told The Post. "But I really believe that sustainability is not about a few white-tablecloth chefs providing an example. It's about making it accessible to everyone."

To which we can only add our usual advice: If you want to keep seafood sustainable, don't order the fish.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Where Menus Come From

Here's how two very different ideas converge to make dinner.

Our friend Mary is visiting from California and she brought a suitcase full of her favorite wines for us to try. Since we have so often complained about not being able to find a reliable Pinot Noir, Mary brought one she thought we were sure to like from the Russian River Valley near her home base in Sonoma County.

Meanwhile, I've been fretting over our crop of onions. The foliage looks like its dying on a number of plants. But the onions appear to be too small for harvesting. I dug up some red and yellow onions for a closer look. While I was at it, I dug up some potatoes, too, from plants that seem to be under some distress from one kind of fungus or another.

Pretty soon, a menu emerges: grilled pork tenderloin to go with the Pinot, plus some mushrooms because Mary thought they also would taste especially good with this wine. After boiling the potatoes until just cooked through, I browned them in the iron skillet and tossed them with the onions, which I had sauteed until lightly caramelized. To finish the plate: green beans tossed with butter and parsley.

Mary was right. This Pinot from Lynmar vineyards was not like any of the candy-ass Pinots we're used to. It was complicated and nuanced and full of rich berry flavors--all the things we look for in a great red wine and probably too much wine for this little bit of pork tenderloin.

I've heard a lot lately from gardeners here in the District of Columbia about troubles growing onions. I asked our farmer friend Mike who supplied us with the original onion sets and he said the red onions have not worked especially well for him either. So perhaps it's just a matter of switching to a different onion. They look and taste great, but really, they should be bigger than a golf ball.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Helluva Burger

South Mountain Creamery, where we subscribe for weekly dairy deliveries, also sells meat products from its own grass-fed cattle. We couldn't resist putting burgers on the menu for the 4th of July, especially my wife's special stuffed burgers.

The stuffing starts with creamed cheese--just the thing to add a little unctuousness to that lean, grass-fed beef, right? Season the creamed cheese with freshly minced garlic, chopped fresh thyme, salt and black pepper. For assembly, lay down a layer of ground beef on some waxed paper, add a big dollop of the cheese mix, then cover with more ground beef, pressing the patty together around the edges.

The burgers can even be made the day ahead and sealed in plastic wrap. Just remove from the fridge a couple of hours before cooking to bring the meat up to room temperature (or not, if you like your burgers especially rare).

We grilled the burgers over mesquite charcoal and served them with our famous sweet potato salad with toasted pecans and orange-maple vinaigrette, as well as a pot of Swiss chard from the garden braised with red onion and pomegranate molasses.

Needless to say, the burgers didn't last long....

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Weekend Update

The Bushites are fond of shifting blame for the current world food crises away from their project to turn corn into ethanol and toward other phonemena, such as the increasingly Western diet demands of China and India. Charles Grassley, the cranky Republican senator from Iowa, also loves to thumb his nose at biofuel critics, saying corn ethanol plays only a small role in the unfolding hunger disaster.

So it must have come as quite a shock when a British newspaper this week published a confidential World Bank report estimating that biofuels in fact have jacked up the cost of food by a whopping 75 percent.

The report is certain to add to pressure on governments in Washington and Europe, which have turned to biofuels to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and reduce their dependence on imported oil. The U.S. government is holding to a position that converting plants into fuels is responsible only for 3 percent of the rise in global food prices.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick has said that the use of corn for ethanol by the United States had consumed more than 75 percent of global corn production over the past three years. Zoellick has called on the United States and Europe to ease subsidies and tariffs on biofuels derived from corn and oilseeds.

The World Bank report was written back in April and apparently was being supressed so as not to put the development bank at odds with the White House. Rising food prices have pushed at least 100 million people below the poverty line, according to the World Bank, and have sparked riots in countries around the globe.


Question: How many ways can the U.S. Department Agriculture distort our food system to benefit big corporations?

Small farmers were already in an uproar over the USDA proposal to tag and monitor all farm animals through something called the National Animal Identification System. Few other government proposals have stirred as much ire in the farm community as this one. It would impose incredible burdens on farmers, as it would require them to attach tracking information to every animal they own, register each animal with the government, and file a report any time one of them goes missing, falls ill or dies.

Imagine the impact on a farm where Mom and Pop, while away at the day jobs they keep so they can afford to farm, allow a few cows, pigs, goats and chickens to romp on pasture. It would give a clear advantage to huge industrial livestock operations, or CAFOS, where all the animals are locked up with nowhere to go.

A little known provision in the House Agriculture Appropriations bill now before Congress tilts even more toward Big Ag and the NAIS scheme. This provision would force school lunch programs to purchase their meats only from livestock producers that are participating in the National Animal Identification System.

One thing we've noticed in the food news lately is the number of school systems trying to direct more of their food purchases to local sources. Those efforts would certainly be compormised if the USDA manages to put its dream of universal animal ID ahead of locally grown food.

We will be watching this one closely....


While our own federal government is erecting roadblocks to local products, the world's largest retailer says it is on a mission to stock its food aisles with local produce.

We all love to hate Wal-Mart. But the retailing giant that has done so much to put small businesses out of business and gut the downtown areas of America's cities and towns is starting to play smart with food in ways that could benefit local agriculture.

During the last two years, partnerships between local farms and Wal-Mart have jumped 50 percent, and the company anticipates it will source about $400 million in local produce this year, making it the country's largest buyer of produce that is grown and sold within a state's borders.

At one time, Wal-Mart loved the idea of a warehouse on wheels, its fleet of trucks moving tons of stuff all over the country on a round-the-clock basis. A move to local produce makes more sense when fuel costs are going through the roof.

For instance, instead of buying peaches from just two suppliers nationwide, Wal-Mart can buy peaches from growers in 18 different states and save 100,000 gallons of dieself fuel. Wal-Mart says it plans to get aggressive, enouraging states to start growing a greater variety of crops to fill those produce department bins.


The spike in global food prices has put a billion people at risk of going hungry. Some people wonder, Why can't those people grow their own food?

The answer is, many of them used to. But thanks to the policies of big development banks such as the World Bank and the Bank for International Development--supported, by the way, by our own tax dollars--millions of small farmers have been driven off their subsistence plots and forced to scratch for imported food.

The international system of debts encouraged by "developed" nations such as the U.S. and the European Union have turned previously self-sufficient Third World countries, especially in Africa, into food importing nations. In fact, many of the most needy African countries once were net food exporters. But lending schemes devised in the name of free world trade and international development convinced governments to turn the best land increasingly over to export crops, forcing local farmers onto poor soil to grow the food they need to feed themselves and their countrymen.

While forcing people into poverty and hunger, the arrangement has worked out nicely for big corporations that sell food back to those African countries that can no longer feed themselves. But don't take my word for it. Read all about it here.


Having built a big container garden at my daughter's charter school here in the District of Columbia, I know a little bit about how a garden in the inner-city can benefit small children.

Here's an uplifting story about how 40 volunteers got together to create a school garden that is changing small lives in big ways in San Diego, California.