Friday, April 10, 2009

We've Moved!

The Slow Cook is now located on Wordpress. We've loved our little home here at Blogger, but we will no longer be posting here.

Please go to our new home.

Thank you,

Ed Bruske

Welcome, People Readers

If you've arrived at this site from People magazine, you probably have an interest in starting a food garden or learning more about how to grow your own food. You may also be wondering what's behind the name "Slow Cook."

I guess you could say I am part of a growing movement in this country that rejects industrialized food in favor of food that is produced more sustainably. That encompasses a lot. It means favoring foods that are grown locally without pesticides and chemical fertilizers and without traveling long distances at the expense of enormous amounts of fossil fuels and carbon emissions. It just so happens that the sustainable foods we prefer--grown in a planet-friendly manner and prepared with loving care--are also tastier and more nutritious. And if you grow them yourself, they're a whole lot cheaper as well.

That makes our approach the opposite of "fast food." And that makes us slow.

Food gardening can be as easy or as difficult as you want to make it. If you are just starting, I suggest you take the easy approach. Don't try to do too much at first. Don't go overboard with many different varieties of things. Stick with the fruits and vegetables your family likes to eat most and learn how to grow those. You can always add things later. Gardening is a never ending learning process, even for people who've been doing it for years. If you have children, you will be creating wonderful memories--and good eating habits--that will last a lifetime.

To get you started, I've assembled links to several other web sites that I think will be helpful. At those sites, you may very well find yet more links. In today's world, gardeners spend quite a lot of time cruising around the internet for ideas and information. We also have a wonderful and vast community of fellow gardeners and cooks to share with. (Who knows? You may end up starting your own blog to memorialize your gardening efforts.) And do feel free to cruise around this website and use the search feature.

If you don't have your own yard to garden in, don't despair. You can grow many things in pots even on an apartment balcony. Perhaps there is a community garden in your area, or maybe you would like to start one. Check with your local parks and recreation authority. With more and more people seeking to join community gardens there are often waiting lists. Some erstwhile gardeners are seeking out vacant lots. Others are enlisting the back yards of neighbors to form communal arrangements. And there is a growing movement to establish gardens in schools, where we can connect kids to nature and teach them the benefits of growing our own food.

You might begin by watching this series of short film clips on how to start a garden. Some other good internet sources include Kitchen Gardeners International, Revive the Victory Garden and Vegetable Gardener. There are also several worthwhile gardening forums at Garden Web where you can pose questions to other gardeners who are only to glad to help.

I've also asked some of my fellow food gardening bloggers to share their thoughts on starting a new garden. Take a look at what Sylvie's doing at Rappahanock Cook & Kitch Gardener, or El at Fast Grow the Weeds, Emily at Eat Close to Home, or Michele at Garden Rant.

There are also many excellent books on the market for gardeners of all levels. In fact, your local librarian may be one of your best sources on the subject. And by all means take a look around your neighborhood for the gardener who quietly grows prize-winning tomatoes. She'll gladly talk your ear off if you introduce yourself. And even if you can't get a plot at the local community garden this year, there's nothing to say you can't hang out there and ask questions.

And for all you established kitchen gardeners and urban farmers and homesteaders with blogs, write up your thoughts on starting a garden and send me an e-mail with a link. I post all the links here for the next week.

Good luck, and happy gardening!

Read more great stories about how were are taking back our food system at Fight Back Fridays.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Pardon the Interruption....

The Slow Cook is expecting to be featured in an article about vegetable gardening in People magazine scheduled to hit news stands tomorrow, April 10. We've been told to brace for a flood of visitors to this blog.

Hence, beginning tomorrow, and perhaps for several days, we will be displaying prominently a post on resources for vegetable gardening in the interest of giving novice or first-time gardeners a bit of guidance in starting their own gardens.

As soon as the flood ebbs, we will resume our usual schedule of random musings about food, gardening and the pursuit of a sane agriculture policy in these United State.

Also of note: We have redesigned the blog and are in the process of transferring it completely to a website in Wordpress. Please excuse any technical irregularities that may crop up in the interim. We hope to have everything under control by tomorrow.

In fact, is moving from its old home at to its sparkly new home at Because the transformation is making its way from third-party hosting (blogspot) to a server, you may need to re-register to make comments. We appreciate your patience and are happy to entertain any feedback or suggestions you might have.

Kids Make Deviled Eggs

We couldn't very well have a food appreciation class without something to snack on. So while our Salvadoran curtido is curing, the kids made these deviled eggs.

Actually, I hardboiled the eggs ahead of time in the manner described in our earlier post. Then the kids peeled the eggs and we whipped 1 dozen yolks with 1/4 cup mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard and 1/2 teaspoon salt.

To finish the eggs, we spooned our finshed yolk mix into a plastic storage bag, cut off the tip of one corner and squeezed the mix into the whites. The plastic bag makes a very efficient pastry sack. Simply dust with a little paprika.

Can I just say, kids love deviled eggs.

Kids Make Salvadoran Curtido

When we recently made Salvadoran pupusas with the kids in my food appreciation classes my wife's immediate reaction was, Where's the slaw.

What she was referring to was the cabbage and vegetable melange called curtido that inevitably accompanies Salvadorn fare. Well, we didn't have time in a one-hour class to make the pupusas and the curtido, so we made it this week. And the thing of it is, the slaw is supposed to marinate in its brine for a week, so it's not something you can just whip together and put on the table.

The recipe is simple enough: chop 1/2 head cabbage and blanch in boiling water for 1 minute, then drain. Mix the cabbage with 2 carrots, peeled and grated, 1 small onion, diced, 1 red pepper, diced, 1/2 teaspoon oregano. For the vinaigrette, mix 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon brown sugar, 1/4 cup vinegar and 1/2 cup water.

Toss everything together, cover and refrigerate for 1 week, stirring occasionally. Serve with pupusas or other rustic Hispanic savories..

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hardboiled Eggs

It's true that older eggs are easier to peel when they've been hardboiled. It's also true that you don't have to wait for your eggs to get old to remove the peels without destroying the eggs.

I use Julia Child's method of alternately heating and chilling the eggs. Here's how it works.

For a dozen eggs, choose the best you can find, preferably pasture-raised eggs. Place them at the bottom of a large, heavy pot and cover with 3 1/2 quarts cold water. Bring the pot to a boil. As soon as it begins to boil, remove the pot and allow the eggs to sit, covered, for exactly 17 minutes.

When the 17 minutes have elapsed, carefully remove the eggs to a large bowl of iced water (you may want to buy a bag of ice for this). Allow the eggs to sit in the iced water for 2 minutes. Meanwhile, put the pot on the stove and bring the water back to a boil. (Remove the eggs from the iced water after the 2 minutes are up.) In batches of 6, return the eggs to the boiling water for 10 seconds only. Then remove again and place back in the iced water. Crack each egg in several places (or not, if you are planning to decorate them for Easter) and let the eggs rest in the iced water until well chilled.

Your eggs are now ready for peeling.

How Do You Keep Garden Records?

I must be terribly old-fashioned because I do not have a computer program to plan my garden.

Planning? Mostly I look at what's in my bag of seed packets, look at the garden, look at the seed packets and start digging.

It helps to plant more or less the same variety of vegetables year after year. With nine beds, it's not too hard to rotate. Sometimes it's not easy figuring out where all the big tomato plants are going to go. But more often than not I end up with empty spaces, wondering what I can fill them with. (There have been times I wished I didn't have so much lettuce.)

My basic tools are some thin bamboo poles for dividing the beds into squares, a tape measure and a spiral bound book where I record what I have done. I've gotten pretty good at planting freehand, meaning moving my bamboo poles to create fairly precise little areas in which to plant a few radishes, say, or carrots or an area of several different varieties of lettuces.

Not far away is my book where I sketch out the bed with pencil, then make notations on what is planted in the squares and the date it was planted. I've never had to buy labels for my garden beds. Whenever I need to remember what I've planted, I just pull out the book. It also works as an excellent log. If I need to know planting dates, for instance, the book tells me instantly. I can also make notes on how long things took to germinate, which varieties did well and which didn't.

I'm not sure this would be so simple on the computer. But maybe there are some laptop gardeners out there who know better.

How do you keep your garden records?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Shareholders Force McDonald's to Act on Pesticides

Feeling pressure from a coalition of shareholders, McDonald's has announced that it will examine the use of pesticides on the potatoes it purchases with an eye toward possibly reducing the use of noxious chemicals and making public information about the extent to which its potatoes are sprayed.

Under an agreement with the shareholder group--the Bard College Endowment, Newground Social Investment and the AFL-CIO Reserve Fund--McDonald's, the nation's largest purchaser of potatoes, will:

* survey its current U.S. potato suppliers

• compile a list of best practices in pesticide reduction that will be recommended to the company’s global suppliers (through the company’s Global Potato Board)

• communicate findings related to best practices to shareholders, as well as in the company’s annual corporate social responsibility report.

The three investor groups teamed with Investor Environmental Health Network to engage McDonald’s in talks about pesticide reduction. The shareholders said the company’s commitment will support progress on the pesticide issues that affect the environment, public health, and farm employees.

We say this is a good thing. A spud without chemicals is definitely a better spud. And we like the idea of shareholders mobilizing for food free of pesticides.

Look What's Coming Out of the Ground

Excuse me while I gush over my fava beans. They are one of the first plants to emerge in the spring and they also happen to be one of the most interesting. As they grow, favas assume an architectural yet almost prehistoric looking structure. You would hardly know they were a bean. Yet these are the original beans of the Old World, the so-called broad bean. We love to smash them with peas and Romano cheese and smear them on bruschetta.

The peas are coming up. There's a long row of them in a bed where I plan to plant mostly beans this year. As they get taller, I will drive wooden stakes into the ground and tie string to give the peas something to hang on to with their little tendrils.

The leaf lettuces have all germinated, along with the radishes and all of our brassica greens: arugula, mizuna, tat soi and mustard. We are seeing the first signs of the new Swiss Chard as well as beets. Carrots take long time to germinate and we are still waiting to see the parsnips and burdock emerge.

Some weeks ago I planted seed trays with four heirloom varieties of tomatoes: Cherokee Purple, Mortgage Lifter, Dr. Carolyn (a golden cherry tomato) and Roma. They've already been moved into larger pots and are towering over the bell peppers and eggplants. We have a few broccoli plants and kohlrabi, as well as many little parsley, cilantro, dill and chervil. They will be strategically placed in the garden so that we have a steady supply of fresh herbs. The cilantro will bolt quickly, of course. That's one herb that doesn't take very well to our hot summers here in the District of Columbia and needs to be planted repeatedly.

And for the first time we've planted onions from seeds. In the past, we always started our onions from small sets, but they never seemed to get very large. Every day lately I've been carrying the trays of onion plants outside for sun, but it's been a cool and often dreary spring this year. (Great for the spinach, another favorite that's quick to bolt in the heat.) We've seen frequent rain and wind. We should be transplanting the onions soon.

This is one of those traditional times when the garden isn't yielding much in the way of ingredients for our kitchen. But there is great hope and lots to keep an eye on. Meanwhile, we are still eating last year's pickles.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Have Garden, Will Trade for Sausage

Last year I began trading some of the produce we grow in our kitchen garden here in the District of Columbia for venison a neighbor harvests on a family farm in Virginia. So far we had received two large packages of venison stew meat and some tenderloin. My last gift to them was a box full of pickles and preserves, a sampling of the many jars we had left over from the summer.

The neighbors said they were enjoying the pickles and hinted that more venison was on the way, this time in the form of some sausages. "It's being processed now," they said.

Then one night a figure appeared at the store carrying a strange looking load. I turned on the porch light and had a long, frozen package thrust in my direction. When I unwrapped it, this is what I found: two 20-inch long venison summer sausages, the biggest sausages I've ever seen.

Truthfully, I wasn't expecting much from this sausage. As you can see from the label, it was processed for private consumption only. There are big letters indicating "Not For Sale." I thought it would be dry and tasting of who knows what. But that just shows you how little I know about venison sausage. This summer sausage is some of the best stuff I've ever tasted, moist and meaty and--how to say this--barely distinguishable from the finest beef sausage.

That leaves just one question: what to do with two 20-inch long sausages?

I decided we should start eating some immediately, put some away in the freezer and share the rest with friends. So after the sausage defrosted, I cut it into portions. And began eating...I think I have a new favorite high-protein snack.

Meanwhile, the neighbors will be getting two fine tomato plants. We are growing them now and soon will be planting them in the garden. They'll be able to come by any time and pick what they like. Does that sound like a fair trade to you?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

News Bites

Fresh Fruits & Vegetables on the Decline...

The Produce for Better Health Foundation reports that families as a result of poor economic conditions are buying fewer fresh fruits and vegetables. A survey of mothers finds that fruit consumption has dropped 12 percent in the last year while vegetable purchases are down 6 percent.

The drop is especially pronounced in lower income households, the foundation reports. Most mom's--87 percent--say it's important to include fresh produce in their family's diet. Still, 90 percent of American households fail to eat the recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables.

Too Close for Comfort....

A new study shows that kids who go to school near a fast food joint are more likely to be obese.

The study followed 9th graders over a decade and found they were 5 percent more likely to be overweight if their school was located within one-tenth mile of a pizza, burger or other fast-food outlet.

“It could be that students don’t like to wander too far,” said one of the study's authors. “Maybe they don’t have a long lunch period. Maybe it’s just the effect of having temptation right in front of your eyes.”

Dandelions are Cool Again....

Congratulations to the park system in Chicago, Illinois, for ditching pesticides and urging homeowners to do likewise. Nearly 90 percent of Chicago's park lands are now chemical free.

“The Park District is keeping our Chicago parks a healthy place for everyone to enjoy,” said Tim Mitchell, Chicago Park District Superintendent and CEO.

The Chicago Park District mows turf grass to keep weeds down. Following natural lawn care basics, the Park District keeps the grass three inches high. This allows the roots to grow strong and access water deep in the ground. As a result, the taller grass naturally shades out some weeds. With the reduction in use of chemical weed killers, dandelion flowers grow back quickly, oftentimes overnight. The sight of dandelions indicates grass that is healthy and safe for all park patrons to play on.

Gardeners Glory in San Fran's Compost....

San Francisco implimented municipal curb-side pickup of food scraps and other compostables and now the city is producing tons of "black gold" for local farms, orchards and gardens.

San Francisco's garbage and recycling companies are leading the way in producing a high-quality, boutique compost tailored for Bay Area growers, experts say. In one year, 105,000 tons of food scraps and yard trimmings - 404 tons each weekday - get turned into 20,000 tons of compost for 10,000 acres.

The compost is in such demand from nearby growers of wine grapes, vegetables and nuts that it sells out at peak spreading season every year.

About 2,000 restaurants, 2,080 large apartment buildings and 50,000 single-family homes have embraced the city's environmentally friendly green bins.

Local Meat Prices Sky High....

Here's a livestock farmer who confesses what we've been saying all along: shoppers at farmers markets are paying outrageous prices for locally raised meats.

"Local farmers are unwilling or unable to scale up to reasonable production levels, so they compensate for low volume by charging exorbitantly high prices to get their cash flow up," says farmer Bob Comis, writing in the Ethicurean blog.

This reminds us of the $28-a-pound pork shoulder we once purchased at the Dupont Circle farmers market here in the District of Columbia.

"Local meat, poultry, and eggs, however, are dramatically more expensive than industrial, often two, three, or even more times so," Comis continues. "Are these dramatically higher prices legitimate, in the sense that they reflect the true cost of raising that food? I don’t think so. I believe very strongly that these prices are as artificially high as industrial food is low."

Comis says the reason for nose-bleed prices is because local farmers grow on such a small scale. They charge a fortune, but still don't make much of a profit. The solution? Local farmers need to scale up so they aren't charging "extortionate" prices.

"Local meat is more expensive than industrial and always will be, there is no doubt about that. But it’s time for a little honesty about just how much more expensive it really needs to be."

Is Kent Conrad a Blockhead?

Senate Budget committee chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) has announced he will reject President Obama's plan to cut billions in crop subsidy payments that flow mostly to large profitable farm operations and wealthy landowners.

Instead, according to a March 24 report by Charles Abbott of Reuters news service, Conrad said he would slash several other programs, among them two conservation programs that are critical to winning the fight against global warming.

The conservation programs Conrad would like to cut help farmers reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions and also engage in practices that take carbon out of the air and store it in the soil. They help farmers protect their land and the environment from the more frequent floods, droughts, and severe weather blamed on global warming.

Unlike millionaire "farmers," however, conservation programs don't make campaign contributions.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Starting Beans

Suddenly it's raining every day. Too wet to plant things outdoors. But a perfect time to get things started in seed trays in the classroom.

I read three times a week to one of the classes at my daughter's charter school and in spring our attention turns to the garden. Sprouting seeds is always a fascinating activity for the kids. So I brought a bag of last year's bean pods and had the kids open them to see what's inside.

Even Kindergartners catch on fast. I didn't have to show them how to pry the seed pods open. As you can see, we have two different kinds of pole beans. If all goes well, they'll soon be climbing the chain link fence that surrounds the school's sprawling container garden.

I simply filled the seed cells with soil from the garden. It's mostly compost, very loose. Everyone planted two seeds along with a craft stick with her name on it. We also planted a few leftover cells for good measure and created a special germination exhibit, hiding some seeds in damp paper towel. We'll check on them occasionally so we can watch the plant emerge.
Kids love to mess with seeds.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Kids Make Pupusas

Our "food appreciation" classes arrived in El Salvador on our virtual world food tour and there's nothing more typical on a menu in El Salvador than pupusas. Pupusas are like thick pancakes filled with any combination of meat, vegetables and cheese and like just about everything else in this part of the world they start with corn meal.

To make dough for 15 or more pupusas, mix 3 cups Maseca or other prepared corn meal with 2 2/3 cups water. (This corn meal, the Hispanic version of Bisquick, has been "nixtamalized," meaning the corn was first soaked in a solution of water and lime or lye. It's widely available in Latin groceries.) When the water is fully incorporated, use your hands to continue the process. The dough should be spongy but not rubbery, moist but not sticky. Shape the dough into a big ball and knead it vigorously on a flat surface for a minute or two. Then wrap the ball in plastic and refrigerate for an hour or more, but not more than 24 hours.

Pull off pieces of dough and shape them into rounds a little bigger than a golf ball, depending on how large you want your pupusas to be.

In El Salvador, you'll hear a familiar "pat, pat, pat" as grandma flips the dough from one hand to another, flattening it into a perfect round. But we're new at this, so we used our tortilla press. Don't press too hard! You want your round to be about 1/4-inch thick.

Next, lay a spoonful of your filling in the middle of the round. We made a simple filling of refried beans and mozzarella cheese. What we call "refried" beans actually translates as "well-fried" in Spanish. You can make them yourself mashing cooked pinto beans with lard in a skillet over moderate heat. Canned refried beans also work. We mixed 1 cup fresh mozzarella with a 28-ounce can of beans.

Now carefully fold the edges of the round over the filling and smooth out all the rough edges. Gently mold the package into a ball.

The object is to flatten your package into a pancake shape without creating any cracks or squeezing out the filling. Place it under a layer of plastic and gently press into shape.

Now you are ready to cook your pupusas. Any moderately hot griddle will do. We used our Mexican comal, a flat iron skillet covered with just enough extra-virgin olive oil to coat both sides of the pupusas. Fry on each side until golden.

Now for the best part. At the many Salvadoran restaurants here in the District of Columbia, pupusas are typically served with a traditional cabbage and vegetable slaw called "curtido." But nobody says you can't eat them just like this.

You can read other great stories about how we are taking back our food system at Fight Back Fridays.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Our Best Yogurt Yet

Our friend Sylvie at Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener inspired a trip to the health food store to look for a better brand of yogurt culture. I wasn't expecting any more than what I usually see at Whole Foods. Imagine my surprise.

In fact, there were several appealing yogurts I had never seen before, including this one called "siggi's," made in New York State but billing itself as an "Icelandic style" yogurt or "skyr." Of all the yogurts in the dairy case it boasted the largest selection of active cultures: Acidophilus, Delbrueckii Bulgaricus, Delbrueckii Lactis and Thermophilus.

Don't ask me what all of it means. Microbiology was not by best subject in college. I just wanted something more than the usual.

The way I've been making yogurt for the past several months is to add some of last week's yogurt to a pot of whole, unhomogenized creamtop milk, provided by grass-fed cows and delivered to our door by South Mountain Creamery in Western Maryland. The original culture for this yogurt came from a quart of Seven Stars Farm yogurt purchased at Whole Foods. Seven Stars, a biodynamic, organic operation located in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, makes a wonderful yogurt. But I was itching for something a little different.

The "skyr" has an additional depth of flavor. I can't put my finger on it exactly, but there's something about the tang that hints just a wee bit at a barnyard--in a pleasant sort of way. In addition, I planned on adding whole cream to this next batch of yogurt. Because we haven't ordered any cream for some time, and because my wife hoards the half-and-half for her coffee, I've been making yogurt with milk only and the result has been thinner, with more curdles. My wife insisted the curdles were a result of my overcooking the yogurt. But I knew better. I was convinced that re-establishing the cream in my formula would return us to thick, rich yogurt.

Can I take a moment to gloat?

I mixed 3 1/4 cups creamtop milk with 1/2 cup heavy cream in a heavy sauce pan and brought it slowly up to 195 degrees over gentle heat. That takes about an hour. I then monitored the pot very closely and kept the mix around that temperature for about 15 minutes. After removing the pot from the heat, I partially filled the kitchen sink with cold water and placed the pot in it, stirring the milk until the temperature dropped to 120. At that point I mixed in 1 tablespoon of last week's yogurt and 1 tablespoon of "skyr." I then poured the mix into a warm quart canning jar and placed it along with two other canning jars filled with hot water in a small cooler. There the yogurt sat overnight, giving the bacteria plenty of time and a cozy, warm nest in which to get busy.

I showed the finished yogurt to my wife the next morning and she was convinced. It was the thickest, creamiest, tastiest yogurt we have ever made. I don't see much room for improvement, and I consider the $3 I spent on that 6-ounce container of "skyr" a valuable investment.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Peach of a Spring

The little peach tree we planted last year at my daughter's charter school is beginning to bloom. Exquisite.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Swiss cheese omelet with Canadian bacon and onion tops.

Preparation: 10 minutes

Shopping: none

A high quality Emmentaler cheese brings a great deal of flavor and a bit of saltiness to this omelet. I also dice some Canadian bacon stored in the fridge. This time of year we are growing onion in seed trays for transplanting in April. As the slender leaves get very long and begin to topple over, I cut them back and scatter the trimmings over my eggs. They taste like chives, but even stronger.

For a high-protein breakfast, add a couple of slices of your favorite bacon. We like ours from Benton's, but when that runs out the slab bacon from Whole Foods makes a worthy substitute. Or perhaps you've found a bacon you like at the local farmer's market? I roast the bacon on a parchment-covered baking sheet in a 350-degree oven. Save the grease for frying and sauteing.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Last Fish: Calamari Veracruz

I promise this will be the last time I talk about our favorite Veracruz sauce for a while. But we still had some left over (after at least one other catfish dinner and a breakfast) and so I tried it on a pound of squid.

Squid is not to everyone's taste unless it's been battered and fried and served as calamari fritti with a pint of beer. But I happen to like the pristine flavor and slightly chewy texture of squid au naturel. Squid also happens to be economical relative to most seafood and having just come off a sustainable seafood symposium I thought I'd try eating a little lower on the food chain. Squid are abundant and get a big, green "best choice" rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" program as long as they're the "common squid" caught in the U.S. Atlantic.

I bought these squid at Whole Foods already cleaned. Otherwise, you need to reach into the squid cavity and pull out the guts as well as the cartilage that serves as the squid's backbone. There's also a very thin, purplish membrane covering the squid's body that needs to be removed. Then just give the squid a good rinse. Cut off and reserve the tentacles. If the squid hasn't already been cleaned when you bought it, you will need to find the squid's beak in the tentacles and remove that as well.

To cook, just bring the Veracruz sauce to a light boil in a skillet and add the squid. Toss the squid for a minute or two until it is just cooked through. Too much cooking will make it tough. Serve immediately, perhaps with a little chopped parsley for garnish.

We ate ours with some leftover curry-roasted cauliflower that seemed to work particularly well the olive-jalapeno-cinnamon-clove flavors of the Veracruz sauce. I'm beginning to think this sauce is worth making ahead and freezing, it works so well with a variety of seafood.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Of Bears, Opossums, Asapargus and pH

What with the confrontation between dogs and bears and the opossums eating the chickens, it was a very busy week for farmer Lee Hauter.

An unholy row forced Lee out of bed one night. A bear he recognized from last fall apparently had risen from its long hibernation and approached the farm looking very skinny and hungry. Lee's two big Pyrenees dogs, fierce defenders of the property, rushed to inform the bear he was not welcome.

Fortunately, dogs and the bear were separated by a fence. After some fierce gnashing of teeth and viscious snarling, the bear departed back into the woods.

Then on Friday night Leigh awoke from a dream in which raccoons were eating his chickens. He shook it off and went back to sleep. But now he regrets not following his inner voice. That night with all the rain a section of the movable electric fence that surrounds one of his chicken broods collapsed. Opossums--not raccoons--took advantage and killed five of Leigh's chickens.

Wait. Opossums eat chickens?

"You can tell it was opossums," Leigh said, "because they suck the innards right out."

Good to know.

Besides these flirtations with the wild animal kingdom, Leigh did have some business to take care of--like the hoop houses that needed building, and bees that needed feeding, the 600 asparagus roots that needed planting, the 300 raspberry brambles that arrived and the 100 horseradish roots.

I was particularly interested to hear about the asparagus because my wife and I have our eyes on a patch of yard where we plan to put our own asparagus. Of course Leigh works on a much larger scale. About four years ago he planted 1,500 roots for Bull Run Farm's CSA subscribers. The 600 he ordered this year were meant to replace some plants that had been lost in the intervening years.

For the asparagus, Leigh pulls a bottom plow behind his tractor creating a trench about 10 inches deep. In the past he would toss horse manure into the trench and lay the asparagus roots on top. Asparagus can also be grown from seeds. But most growers prefer to buy the root stock. It takes about three years for the asparagus roots to become firmly established before you start harvesting the delicious stems.

Horse manure sounded familiar. That's precisely what my wife had proposed to do: dig a big hole and fill it with horse manure to rot while the asparagus was establishing itself. But Leigh says his grower now advises very firmly against horse manure or even compost until the asparagus is actually growing. Leigh says the issue is creating a soil that is too acid. Asparagus prefers a pH in the range of 7 to 7.2. So instead of tossing horse manure into the trench he added some bone meal.

"Bone meal is more expensive than lime," Leigh said. "But I'm going for the extra nutrition."

Leigh said that over the years he's become especially aware of his soil's pH. A soil's pH--a measure of less than seven indicating acidity, more than 7 indicating alkalinity--governs a plant's ability to take up nutrients through its roots. Some plants, such as blueberries and potatoes, like an acid soil. Other plants, such as cabbage and other brassicas, prefer a more alkaline soil. Most vegetables, in fact, prefer a soil that is slightly acid--somewhere in the range of 6.5 to 7.

"I test the soil around the farm all the time," Leigh said. "I'm a lot more concerned than I used to be."

What really focused Leigh on soil pH was a particular field on his farm that never seemed to perform up to par. No matter what he planted there, the yields were never good. "It always seemed to look parched," Leigh said. Finally he sent some of the soil off for analysis and learned that it was too acid. The lab gave him a specific recommendation for how much lime to add to balance the acid.

After that, Leigh stopped at the farm supply and purchased his own pH measuring tool. "I spent a couple hundred bucks on it," Leigh said. Apparently, that would be $200 well spent.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Watch Slow Cook on Television

This must be the week when the news media wake up to spring and want to interview The Slow Cook in his garden.

We've been interviewed about chickens by WAMU radio, appeared on the Kojo Nnamdi show to talk about food gardening and yesterday we entertained a film crew from FOX News to talk about planting vegetables.

FOX is calling it "recession gardening" and it's supposed to appear today on America's News Channel sometime between 2 and 4 pm, then again at 4:30. That would be one of FOX's cable channels, and unfortunately we no longer take cable (or satellite, in our case). They said channel 32 or 37 here in the Washington area, but who knows if that's correct.

The producer and camerman spent about 45 minutes filming me talking about how easy it is to grow vegetables at home, and how much money you save on grocery bills. They shot me digging into the compost pile and planting potatoes. They even took a shot of our canned goods leftover from last year, and parted with a jar of green tomato mincemeat.

If you do happen to catch a glimpse of it, do let us know. My wife is always concerned that I'm not properly styled....

An Alternative to Farmed Salmon

Everybody sells it. But farmed salmon gets a big fat "avoid" from marine environmental groups such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program. The reasons are many:

* Salmon are carnivorous. It takes three pounds of fish feed to create one pound of salmon, meaning
stressed fish populations are being further exploited to create farmed salmon. Salmon feed can also include wastes from poultry operations or genetically modified soy and canola.

* Because they are raised in confined areas, farmed salmon are ideal hosts for sea lice and other parasites, which they then spread to the nearby wild population. Chemicals used to treat salmon for sea lice pollute the ocean.

* Farmed salmon are highly prone to a host of diseases, requiring treatment with vaccines and antibiotics.

* Farmed salmon frequently escape, threatening wild populations.

* Farmed salmon build more fat than wild salmon, making them prone to accumulate more toxins such as PCBs. Eating farmed salmon can pose a health risk.

* Farmed salmon labeled "organic" in Europe should not be considered "sustainable." These "organic" farm operations are allowed to use chemical treatments for sea lice, for instance, and are still prone to fish escapes and other environmental damage. "Organic" salmon still requires enormous inputs of wild fish as feed.

*The Londong-based Marine Stewardship Council has certified as "sustainable" more than 2,000 seafood products, not one of them farmed salmon, even from their own back yard. They have certified wild-caught Alaska salmon.

So what's the alternative to farmed salmon?

I'm so glad you asked. Seafood Watch recently sent out a notice encouraging consumers to choose farmed Arctic Char instead. Char is in the salmon family and looks very much like salmon. But unlike farmed salmon, farmed char does not harm the environment or pose a risk to human health. Here's what "Seafood Watch" has to say:

"Arctic char are in the salmon family and native to the northern regions of North America and Europe. Though it's available wild-caught, char is typically raised in land-based re-circulating systems which reduce the risk of disease transfer, pollution and fish escapes.

"Like salmon, Arctic char are carnivores that require feed made from wild fish -- causing a drain on the ocean's natural food web. However, the amount of wild fish needed to produce farmed Arctic char is low compared to other carnivorous farmed fish like salmon and this one issue of concern does not warrant a lower overall Seafood Watch ranking."

The wild salmon fisheries of Alaska are still rated a "best choice" by Seafood Watch and are certified sustainable by the Marine Fisher Council. But if you are looking for something different, do try farmed Arctic char. And if your fish merchant isn't carrying it, ask her to start. Try poaching a char fillet and serving it with your favorite tartar sauce.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Don't Wait for a Community Garden Plot!

We don't publish many guest posts here at The Slow Cook (this may be the first). But this story was too good to pass by. Nat West, of Portland, Oregon, got tired of waiting for a community garden plot. So he went to Google's satellite map, located a vacant lot near his home and turned it into his own CSA urban farm.

By Nat West

I live in urban Portland Oregon on an average-sized city lot of 5000 square feet. That's 50 feet by 100 feet. My house takes up almost 1000 square feet, my garage another 750 square feet or so, and an always-shaded driveway about another 500. Throw in a grand old cedar tree on the southern neighbor's property, a nice deck to relax on during summer months, and I find myself happy to have squeezed in about 250 square feet of raised beds.

Now 250 square feet of good dirt produces a heck of a lot of zucchinis, cherry tomatoes, peas and lettuce, provided I plant intensively. But I'm one of the lucky ones because of the orientation of my property, the placement of the house on it, and the surrounding neighbors' structures and trees. Some of the properties on my block could not grow anything more than a few tomatoes in pots, no matter how much grass they gave up.

After a few years of growing on 250 square feet, I decided it was time to expand. I never had the room for voluminous crops like cabbage, winter squash, pumpkins or corn. And I would frequently prune my yellow crookneck squash to a single vine. I've even tried trellising beans, peas and tomatoes, but once I decided to seriously grow food for my family, not just pretty summer fruits, I simply had to expand.

So I did what most urban gardeners do when they find themselves in a similar situation. I found the closest community garden owned by the city and put my name on a waiting list 18 months long.

After mulling it over for a bit, I realized that an "18 month waiting list" is worse than a "twenty minute wait" at a swanky restaurant. The maƮtre d' has no real idea how long it will take to get me seated. She's just guessing that table 22 will get up soon. But unlike eating a meal, gardening never "ends". After all, why would it? There's no forced-eviction after a couple years so everyone gets a chance. You can rent a plot forever, or even sublet it like rent-controlled apartments in New York. The likelihood of getting a plot is even slimmer since, in recent years, many home garden seed suppliers are selling more than they've ever sold before. Those seeds have to go somewhere, and I haven't notice people razing houses and chopping down trees in my neighborhood.

I concluded that I could not wait for a community garden space to open up. I had to find my own garden space.

The first thing I did was to think about my neighbors' yards. Some of my neighbors had patches of relatively unkempt grass. Would they mind if I killed the grass, tilled the dirt and planted vegetables? I would have to share some produce, but they also get out of mowing. And of course I would have to use their water for irrigation. I figured it wouldn't be too hard to put together three or four small parcels, each about the size of my own garden at home.

But as I thought about the daily effort and workload of managing multiple plots, and dealing with multiple people, I realized that it might turn into a lot of work very quickly. What if a neighbor cut me off in mid-season? Or what if a neighbor ate everything, thinking they were entitled? How many sets of hoes, shovels and wheelbarrows would I need to buy? I realized that these issues would have to be dealt with no matter what, but it was in my best interest to have the fewest number of plots as possible. Which meant that I needed to “go big” - find the largest contiguous plots I could.

Other than riding my bike around the neighborhood and keeping my eyes peeled while on walks, I used Google Maps’ satellite view, in high magnification. Starting at my house, I made concentric circles, searching block by block for empty lots or very large back yards. Using this strategy, I was able to quickly identify a number of potential sites that I would not have found had I been searching on foot.

Now that I had a list of nearby large yards and empty lots, I used Portland Maps, an online database of property records. Navigating through the maps, I was able to find the name and address of the owner of each property. The same information could have been found using public records at the county courthouse, but I saved an immense amount of time. In some cases, I also cross-referenced them in the phone book since the address on file with the county is oftentimes not a current address, especially in the case of empty lot owners.

I planned to contact them in person if I could not find the mailing information for a particular lot. I sent an introductory letter to the landowners, explaining who I was, where I lived, and what I wanted to do on their land. I got one response, for a full empty lot directly across the street from my house. 5000 square feet of flat, full-sun dirt, absolutely perfect.

The landowner had recently received a nuisance complaint from the city about the buildup of refuse on the lot. She was elated that I would clean up the lot and turn it into a garden. In exchange for the use of the land, I am providing her with approximately one CSA share of produce for 16 weeks. We drew up an agreement, and she promises to give me as much advance notice as possible should she decide to sell. She also offered me a lot four times the size of this one, about 20 blocks away, which I hope to use next year.

Eventually I came to the realization that my new lot is much better than a community garden plot. I did not have to wait 18 months, or for that matter, 18 years for a small plot. I pay no rent for my 5000 square feet, but I would have to pay rent for a fraction of that size in a community garden. Also, I get to manage crop rotations, soil amending, and pest management holistically.

Community plot gardeners have to either work together or more often than not, grow weaker crops beset by pests because they are surrounded by crops grown using different practices, oftentimes on depleted soils. Working to encourage more collectivism of community gardens would solve some of these problems, but why wait? I’m sure there are usable, empty lots around your neighborhood.

For another ingenious approach, read about Murray Hill Row-by-Row, an urban CSA started by a school teacher in Annapolis, Maryland, who got 22 neighbors to share their back yards to grow food. And for even more stories about how the food system is changing, check out "Fight Back Friday."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sustainable Seafood? Good Luck!

Studies indicate that the world's fisheries may be facing total collapse by 2048. Some 80 percent of commercial fish are already being exploited beyond or near their ability to sustain themselves. So imagine a world in which most of the world's governments are actively promoting the pillaging of oceans and even the best experts in the seafood industry can't agree on how consumers should go about deciding which seafood to buy.

Those are the lessons I drew from a sustainable seafood confab hosted this past weekend by the Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum and the American Institute of Wine and Food. Of course, most of the people were there for the food. They packed a Friday night cocktail reception with tons of ceviche, raw bar and various seafood stations. A lunch on Saturday was booked early. I attended two panel discussions Saturday that didn't quite fill the museum's Baird Auditorium. But many of the big guns were represented, including Monterey Bay Seafood Aquarium, the Marine Stewardship Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Three of D.C.'s premier seafood chefs were on hand--Bob Kinkead, Jeff Black and Barton Seaver. Alton Brown, as host, maintained a lively banter and injected a bit of humor.

All agreed that an attitude of "pillage and plunder" still prevails on the world seas. Fish are the only wild creatures still hunted commercially. Enforcement of environmental laws on the oceans is virtually impossible. Only a handful of countries--the U.S., Norway, Iceland, New Zealand, Australia--take sustainability seriously, while the Europeans, and especially countries such as Spain, are among the worst offenders. Everyone seems agreed that if anything is to be done about saving the planet's fish populations--and by extension the oceans themselves--consumers will have to step up and start playing a more active role by avoiding seafood that has not been sustainably caught. In other words, vote with your fork.

"Governments around the world have failed to save our oceans," said Steve Murawski of the National Fisheries Service. But miracles can happen when government,industry and environmentalists work together to allow individual species to recover and thrive. That is the best strategy for creating sustainable fisheries. For instance, the striped bass, once king of the Chesapeake Bay, was nearly wiped out. Then a moratorium was declared and now the striped bass is on top of its game again. Swordfish, also, are making a comeback in the Atlantic following strict regulations. And Murawski said that careful husbandry of resources is now producing some of the biggest sea scallops ever seen, right here in the U.S.

What I was most interested in knowing is how consumers can go about choosing sustainable seafood when information is often conflicting or hard to come by, and when so much of the seafood we see on restaurant menus or on display in the supermarket clearly does not fit the description of "sustainable." It gets even more confusing when you find chefs who proclaim to be sustainability advocates serving fish that otherwise would fall under the heading of "avoid" on the lists provided by the protectionists' leading lights.

What's going on?

Alton Brown, for instance, has become a big advocate of the lists formulated by organizations such as Monterey Bay Seafood Aquarium and Blue Ocean Instute. The lists, available online and as printed pocket guides, advise consumers which seafood is "best" (green), which is "acceptable" (yellow) and which we should "avoid" (red).

Unfortunately, lists such as these rub some chefs the wrong way. Jeff Black said, "it's very simplistic to say this is on a red list and this is on a yellow list." For instance, the Monterey Bay Seafood Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" program lists farmed salmon as "avoid." Salmon farming raises all kinds of environmental concerns. Black gets his from operations in Scotland and Ireland that have been certified as "organic" in Europe. Yet "organic" doesn't signify sustainable. Black counters that "if we stopped eating farmed salmon and just ate wild salmon from Alaska (which is certified as sustainable), the wild salmon would be gone instantly."

Both Black and Bob Kinkead argue that part of the problem is consumers' lack of interest in fish other than the familiar triad of tuna, swordfish and salmon. And there is the strong indication that in order to survive as going concerns, restaurants need to cater to customer desires by seeking out fish that might not qualify as certified "sustainable." Black said he has tried offering tilapia in his restaurants, for instance. Tilapia, a vegetarian fish, can be easily grown in sustainable aquaculture facilities. But while he can put it on the lunch menu, "people just won't buy tilapia for dinner," Black said.

"I have to be able to sell product that makes enough money to keep the business going," Black declared.

And watch out. The choices are likely to get even harder. Tim O'Shea, co-founder of a California business called Clean Fish, said small, artisinal fisheries are on the rise. They may be offering seafood you won't find on any list, or they may sell fish otherwise listed as "avoid" that are being raised or caught in what Clean Fish believes is a sustainable manner, but hasn't caught the eye of rating agencies such as the Marine Stewardship Council.

What these small operations offer, O'Shea said, is a great story about how individuals are fostering sustainability in microcosm, much like the small operators in cutting-edge agriculture who are producing fine cheeses and other products in an artisanal fashion. "The people are as hungry for the story as they are for the fish," O'Shea said.

But Carrie Brownstein, the Seafood Quality Standards Coordinator for Whole Foods Market, warned against buying into "good stories." Brownstein, who scours the globe investigating seafood producers and developing standards for Whole Foods said she has heard many "good stories" and advises consumers to stick with seafood that has been approved by a reputable rating agency such as Marine Stewardship Council.

Confused yet? I was. The question I put to the panel was, How far down in all these layers of information do consumers have to drill before they can be assured that they are purchasing "sustainable" seafood.

There was no satisfactory answer forthcoming. And as Bob Kinkead pointed out, he's been selling seafood for many years and the general restaurant-going public mainly is concerned about being served the fish they want, not what may appear on some environmental organization's green list.

"I care about these issues. And I know everybody in this room cares about these issues," Kinkead said. "But I've gotta tell you, most of the people who come into my restaurant could give a rat's patootie."

My own advice is, if you're not a sustainable seafood expert yourself, stick with the recommendations of "Seafood Watch",Blue Ocean Institute and the Marine Stewardship Council. And fear not: There are plenty of sustainable fish and shellfish to choose from. Among those you might not have heard much about before, try Pacific "black cod," or "Pacific cod," also sold as sablefish. Barramundi is a farmed fish, but make sure it comes with a U.S. label.

"It is everyone's patriotic duty to eat farmed oysters, clams and mussels," said chef Barton Seaver. Of course he's referring to shellfish farmed here in the United States, and especially in the cold waters of New England. But he's right. There's hardly anything more sustainable or economical--or tasty, for that matter--than a big bowl of steamed mussels.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hear Slow Cook on the Radio

The Slow Cook is scheduled to talk about urban food gardening on the Kojo Nnamdi show at 1 p.m. Wednesday, March 25 (tomorrow).

Kojo, a popular host on WAMU radio here in the District of Columbia,is located at 88.5 FM locally. You can also listen to him live on the internet here. The program is usually archived as well within an hour or two of broadcast.

News of Michelle Obama breaking ground for a new garden on the White House lawn has sparked all kinds of interest in food gardening. Here in the District the issue is community gardening and, if you cannot get a spot in a community garden, how to grow food in small spaces. Or how to join back yards with neighbors to form your own CSA. The conversation also needs to include getting local government and business involved to set aside large tracts of land for urban agriculture so that city folk have an affordable and reliable source of local food.

To my mind, the White House garden would be the perfect place to start talking about tax credits and other incentives to promote food gardening and urban agriculture around the country. And to think, the District of Columbia has had a law on the books for more than 20 years calling on the mayor to create an urban gardening program--identify vacant lots for gardening, develop food growing programs for school kids--and nothing has ever been done about it.

Time for a New Compost Pile

If it's spring, it must be time to start a new compost pile. Here are some of our favorite ingredients: leaves collected in the fall and chopped fine in the leaf grinder, coffee grounds from Starbucks, and something new: horse manure.

For years I've been passing a small riding stables on our usual route to the in-laws in Annapolis but it only recently occurred to me to ask the owner if I could have some of her horse manure for my compost. She was eager to oblige and now lets me fill all the buckets I can handle.

I filled four large trash cans with chopped leaves waiting for this moment. A layer of leaves starts the pile.

Then I add a bucket or two of horse manure.

Plus about 10 pounds of coffee grounds. My local Starbucks packs the grounds along with the used filters (they'll compost as well) in the foil bags that their coffee beans arrive in. It's good to have a wide variety of materials in your compost pile, including kitchen scraps, garden debris, dryer lint, pet hair, shredded cardboard. If you have time, chop things into small pieces.

Toss a shovel full of soil or last year's compost to spread some bacteria in the pile to get the process started. Water each layer so it has the consistency of a wrung-out sponge: not too wet, not too dry. The organisms in your compost pile--bacteria, fungi, protozoa, mites, sow bugs, earthworms--need moisture as well as oxygen to survive.

We are aiming for about equal proportions of "brown" or carbonaceous ingredients such as leaves or shredded newspaper and "green" or nitrogenous ingredients such as manure, grass clippings, coffee grounds. But if you have any doubts, it's better to have more "browns" than "greens" to prevent the pile from getting too wet and driving out the necessary oxygen. What you don't want is an anaerobic pile: it will smell horrible.

Temperatures in the pile can exceed 140 degrees, indicating that your bacteria are busy. After the temperature peaks and begins to subside, turn the pile to inject more oxygen. We'll probably be turning this compost into our garden beds in the fall.

For a full tutorial on composting, take a tour of my Monkeysee video.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Whither the Food Movement?

Groundbreaking for the new White House kitchen garden has lit up the food blogosphere as well as the mainstream press. But longtime food advocates who've been toiling away on sustainable food issues for years--and won many significant victories--are worried they're going to be overrun by food celebrities who think they know better what the Obama administration needs to do.

It's still a fractured movement with no real plan. Food isn't even listed on the agenda at Obama's White House website and Agribusiness remains in incredible force. Just think: the entire organics foods industry represents only a "rounding error" in the nation's trillion dollar food economy, or just 3 percent.

In an excellent New York Times summary perspective on where food is headed now, Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition sums up our own feelings neatly. Commenting on the new White House garden he says, "We just want to make sure that interest in that symbolic action can be channeled into some of the more difficult policy challenges.”

Also worth a read is this paper from the Rudd Center at Yale University asking whether Big Food is the present-day equivalent of Big Tobacco, prepared to say and do anything anything to maintain its grip on U.S. consumer dollars. Here's a link to the pdf version.


Catfish Veracruz.

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Shopping: none.

We made this dish the night before so I had leftover sauce as well as two leftover raw catfish fillets. Still, making this unusual sauce with tomatoes, olives, capers, cinnamon and cloves--a Mexican classic--does not take terribly long. I found I had most of the ingredients already in the pantry.

Our friend Marty declared that this was "the best fish I've ever eaten. It didn't taste fishy at all." Well, that's a double confirmation. The nurse at the school where I teach my "food appreciation" classes also announced recently that she had made the dish for a family dinner after he kids brought home the recipe and said it was the best thing yet.

For you fish lovers and low-fat followers, this is an excellent choice. It's packed with protein and few carbs. The catfish was farmed right here in the U.S. and the only fat is the extra-virgin olive oil used to saute the onions.

Try it. You'll like it.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Farmer's New Bees

Very delicately, and while getting stung only twice, Leigh Hauter this week started 10 new bee hives on Bull Run Farm.

Leigh is acquainted with a man who travels the country with his bees, pollinating crops, and also sells bees on the side. Even though the thermometer barely registered 40 degrees, the bees Leigh ordered had arrived and it was time to transfer them to their boxes in the fields.

The process works something like this:

The bees are sold in cages--one cage for workers, a separate cage for the queen. First a queen is lowered into the box in her cage, then a group of workers--about three pounds of them--are released around her. At one end of the queen's cage is a stopper made of sugar. The worker bees begin to gnaw on the sugar. It takes them about three days to eat the sugar, during which the queen releases all kinds of pheromones that bond the bees to the queen and to each other. When the sugar is gone, a hole is revealed in the cage allowing the queen to escape and join her hive.

Leigh first got involved with bees about 20 years ago when he received a bee hive as a wedding present from his farmer father-in-law. "I didn't know the difference between a bee and wasp. I only knew they stung and I was terrified," Leigh says. But the father-in-law promised that if Leigh learned to care for that hive, he'd get another 100 hives plus the farm. Leigh did eventually inherit the farm, but now his hives number only between 20 and 30, enough to produce about 600 pounds of honey each year that he distributes to his CSA subscribers.

Bees are fascinating creatures, much more organized, sociable and responsible than humans. Raising them used to be a cinch, but times have changed. "The bees are so stressed out from what’s happening to our environment," said Leigh. "When I started out 20 years ago it was easy keeping bees. It was called being a 'bee haver.' Now you have to do a lot of work."

When he first started tending bees, Leigh said he might lose five hives out of 100 in any given year. "Now I lose half of them. It’s pretty typical even for a professional bee keeper to lose 40 or 50 percent of her hives," he says.

We've all heard of the "colony collapse" syndrome that has been devastating bee populations around the world for reasons that aren't entirely clear. Leigh said the deaths in his hives are caused mostly by tiny mites that infect the bees. One type of mite invades the bee's trachea and is considered life-shortening, but not devastating. It first appeared in the U.S. around 1984. Some bee varieties, he said, have been bread to resist the trachea mite. A second type of parasite, the vorroa mite, sucks the blood from bees and can wipe out a hive. It also appeared in the '80s and although they can be treated chemically, Leigh decided not to risk the chemicals getting into his honey.

And then there are bears.

"I lost seven hives to bears last fall," said Leigh. "They just took them out and ate them before I put up electric fences. We had a lot of bears move in through our valley last year. I saw one the night before last."

The bees do not become active until the temperature reaches around 50 degrees, and then they will be gathering most of their pollen for only a brief period, from late April to to early June when the tulip trees are in bloom. "Virginia is not really a great place to raise bees," he said.

So what do the bees do the rest of the summer? "The bees fight with each other," said Leigh. "All those worker bees become soldier bees and go and attack the weaker hives."

For the farmer, bees are work, but also a great source of pleasure. "I could sit there on a nice summer afternoon and just watch them come and go," said Leigh. "Especially if they’re nice, gentle bees."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Kids Make Guatemalan Chicken Pepian

Just when I thought our "food appreciation" classes would be leaving Guatemala to continue our virtual world food tour our friend Grace, who works at the local library, e-mailed that she had located a Guatemalan cookbook. After paging through many intriguing recipes, I decided we must extend our stay another week so we could make this traditional Mayan-influenced dish of chicken in a spicy red sauce: chicken pepian.

The high point of this dish is the sauce, made very simply by processing (in our case grinding in the molcajete) toasted seeds, cooked tomatoes, tomatillos, red peppers, all seasoned with a bit of cinnamon. Like other Mayan dishes we love, there is no cooking oil or added fat involved, yet the flavors are a revelation.

Start by cooking a whole chicken cut into pieces (we used only wing pieces--you could use just legs or thighs as well), in three cups of water seasoned with 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cook for about 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the chicken and set aside, reserving the broth.

While the chicken is cooking, chop two ripe tomatoes and one large tomatillo. Stem and seed two large, dried red peppers (such as California pepper, guajillo, New Mexico, cascabel, ancho--anything of that sort). Place the tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers in a saucepan with 1 cup water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook about 15 minutes, or until everything is very tender.

Meanwhile, in the molcajete (or food processor) grind 1/2 cup toasted sesame seeds and 1 tablespoon toasted hulled pumpkin seeds into a fine powder. Add 1/4 teaspoon annatto paste (available in Latin groceries) and continue grinding until the paste is fully incorporated.

When the tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers are cooked, remove them from the saucepan with a slotted spoon and add to the ground seeds along with 2/3 cup French bread (or other white bread, crust removed) moistened with chicken broth and 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour. Continue grinding until everything is fully incorporated and you barely recognize any pieces of food, except perhaps some pepper skin, as shown here. (If you like a spicier sauce, you may add hot red pepper flakes to taste at this point.)

Scrape the mix into a pan, add 2 cups of the broth from cooking your chicken and 1 stick cinnamon broken in half. Cook over moderate heat until it is reduced to a thick sauce.

Next, strain the sauce either by pushing it with a spatula through a sieve or using a commercial strainer as shown here. The kids loved this part, turning the big wooden pestle round and round until the liquid had been pressed into the pot and all that remained in the strainer was a dry mass of seed and pepper skins. The finished sauce is velvety smooth, yet very rustic and exotic tasting with flavors quite foreign to our American palate. I can't think of any better way to describe it than very Mayan.

Place the chicken pieces in the pan with the sauce, toss to coat thoroughly and cook slowly for about 15 minutes, or until the chicken is heated through and almost falling off the bone. As you can see, it almost looks like barbecued chicken, but without any of the cloying sweetness.

We served this to the kids just like this as their reward for all the grinding they did, saving the leftover sauce. That constituted a snack. Chicken pepian would make a cracking good dinner with brown rice and perhaps some steamed chayote squash. Ladle extra sauce over the chicken so that it oozes into the rice.

The kids begged for seconds. We've rarely tasted chicken this good.

Note: anatto is the very tough, brick red seed from the achiote tree used in cuisines around the Caribbean and also as a dye. Its smell is pungent, but the flavor fairly benign. Annatto can also be found as a commercial food coloring in processed foods such as cheese and margerine.

Friday, March 20, 2009

White House to Veg Garden with School Kids

The garden and food blogs are all atwitter with news that Michelle Obama will be installing a food garden at the White House.

Apparently I was outnumbered in my argument against the garden on grounds that President Obama should think about food policy for the whole nation before he started feeding the First Family produce from the back yard. I also thought there was something politically awkward about the Obamas having a staff to feed them garden-fresh produce in a time of financial crisis, or in the absence of a federal program to help everyone install a garden. Too much symbolism, not enough substance for my taste. (A cohort in the food intelligensia agreed with me, but not very publicly.)

What I suggested was that instead of directing the gardening efforts at themselves, the Obamas should think of adopting a school garden. Kids--especially in an urban environment--need the experience of growing their own food so much more, and it would be a huge boost to the idea of school gardens as well connecting schools to local food. As I said then, there were any number of schools within walking distance of the White House that the Obamas could team up with. To my mind, that was the perfect way for the Obamas to have their garden and eat it too.

Could it be that the White House was listening? The New York Times quotes Michelle Obama as saying that the garden's "most important role will be will be to educate children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables at a time when obesity has become a national concern." To that end, the White House is enlisting a squadron of fifth-grader from Bancroft Elementary School--located just blocks from our house in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of the District of Columbia--to come to the White House and dig up an 1,100-square-foot area of lawn and install a vegetable garden there. Thenceforth, the kids will be involved in planting seeds as well as harvesting and cooking the garden's bounty, all under the supervision of the Obama's personal chef Sam Kass.

The Obamas, meanwhile, will help pull weeds "whether they like it or not," Michelle Obama said.

This has to be considered the ultimate reward for Mt. Pleasant resident Iris Rothman, who for years has been the moving force behind the gardening efforts at Bancroft Elementary. Thanks to Rothman, a large swath of asphalt at the school was removed some years ago and replaced with a huge rain garden. The school also boasts numerous raised beds for vegetables and more than two dozen trees planted, thanks to Rothman's tireless efforts.

Will Iris be involved in the White House project? Will she get a big hug from Michelle Obama in recognition of all her local gardening efforts? We certainly hope so. Congratulations, Iris.

Before we get carried away, however, I would just warn the Obamas that while we appreciate this clever solution to the White House garden question, we are still looking for the food policy piece. Or what if the First Lady were to take on the school lunch issue?

Now there's something she could really sink her teeth into....