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 maître 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....

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Don't Drink Bottled Water

Fifty-four million barrels of oil.

That's how much energy it took to quench Americans' thirst for bottled water last year. That's about 2,000 times the energy required to produce the same amount of tap water. And we haven't even begun to calculate the cost of the plastic bottles discarded from approximately 200 billion (that's b-i-l-l-i-o-n) liters of water sold around the globe.

According to a recent study by the Pacific Institute, when water is shipped relatively short distances most of the energy involved in getting it to consumers is tied up in producing the bottle itself. Water bottles typically are made of polyethelene terepthalate (PET), a thermoplastic polymer resin used to make everything from polyester for clothing to food containers. When bottled water is shipped long distances, the cost in energy can double.

And if you thought those bottles were recycled, think again. Most water bottles are still being made of virgin PET, and the Pacific Institute estimates that about 1 million tons of it were used to produce water bottles for the U.S. market in 2007. More than 60 million water bottles end up in landfills and incinerators every day--assuming they weren't just tossed on the side of the road or are floating in the nation's waterways.

If you must drink bottled water, please fill the bottle out of your tap and re-use it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Liver and Onions

Some people hate liver. My wife does not care for organ meat. She would rather die than eat a filtering organ. Me, I like offal of all kinds: liver, kidneys, sweetbreads, heart, tongue, gizzards. Bring it on. It's a shame you can't hardly find it any more at the grocery. We do see kidneys once in a while. Liver--beef liver--seems to be the one consistent exception to the new rule. Occasionally calve's liver. But usually it's hidden in the freezer section.

This particular liver is special. It comes from our dairy, Smith Mountain Creamery, which sells a wide variety of meats. The beef is from their own dairy cows. Lamb and pork they obtain from other farmers in the area. Especially if you are trying to save a penny, it's hard to resist liver.

My favorite way to prepare liver is still the classic diner version. First caramelize a skillet-full of onions. Then drop a dollop of butter in the pan, raise the heat and cook the liver fairly quickly on each side. Unless it is a very thick slice, it will be done in just a couple of minutes. I prefer mine with just a hint of pinkness in the center, not always an easy thing to achieve. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ridiculously Fresh Poached Eggs

I practically stole these eggs right out from under the mother hens. They were still warm. This was a week ago when I collected a dozen on Leigh Hauter's farm outside The Plains, Virginia. Note: They do need to be washed once you get them home.

The eggs cook fairly quickly in a simmering skillet of vinegar-scented water. No fancy equipment--just ease the eggs right from the shell into the water. When they've set, scoop them out with a slotted spoon. Fresh eggs hold together much better than older eggs. Save your old eggs for hard-boiling.

In my quest for protein, I've been cleaning out the freezer as well as dark corners of the fridge. The eggs are nesting on several slices of perfectly cured prosciutto from Benton's Smokey Mountain Country Ham, same place where we order our bacon. Up to now the prosciutto had escaped my attention, so this was my first taste of it and do you know what? Close your eyes and you would never know it came from Madinsonville, Tennessee. Tastes just like Parma, Italy (maybe a little earthier, saltier).

The prosciutto is my new favorite way of getting the runny yolks from plate to mouth.

Monday, March 16, 2009

It's About Time

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is finally doing some enforcement work to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. The EPA has told poultry farmers on Maryland's Eastern Shore that they must now apply for a permit if any of their manure is running off into local waterways.

The federal requirements are even stiffer than what Maryland state officials have proposed. Poultry growers will be required to submit comprehensive reports on how they handle and store the manure produced by their flocks, and list how much they're using as fertilizer on crops and what precautions they're taking to keep it from getting into nearby streams.

The federal regulations also could require many to change their farming practices. The rules sharply restrict the amount of time they can stockpile manure in their fields before working it into the soil and require them to leave much larger swaths of land uncultivated along drainage ditches and waterways.

Agriculture is the largest source of the nutrients degrading the bay's water quality, with runoff of manure and chemical fertilizers responsible for 42 percent of the nitrogen and 46 percent of the phosphorus. Nitrogen and phosphorus runoff each summer results in huge "dead zones" in the bay where fish and other wildlife are unable to survive because of algae blooms that deplete the water's oxygen.

Go here for a full report in the Baltimore Sun.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Farmer and His Garlic

As part of his annual crop rotation scheme, Leigh Hauter over the years had planted garlic just about everywhere he could on his farm except for this strip of land on the slope just below his greenhouse.

The previous owners of Bull Run Farm had not done much in the way of erosion control. "There was very little topsoil left on that slope," he said. So he spent at least five years building the soil again with applications of compost made from horse manure and straw and the droppings from his chickens.

This year, Leigh and his farmhand disagreed over whether the soil was ready for garlic. Leigh said no, the farmhand said yes. "I was never really happy with what had been growing up there," Leigh said. "I didn't want to risk putting my garlic all in one place where it wouldn't do well." Eventually, though, the farmhand prevailed. Garlic it would be.

Leigh prefers a German porcelain variety of hardneck garlic. "It's done better for me, and it makes a larger bulb," he says.

Garlic is divided into two types: hardneck and softneck. They are both grown exactly the same. But the hardneck has a determinate number of cloves (sometimes as few as four, but large) and produces a "scape," a stalk from which a seed head grows. The scapes--tasting of garlic and delicious as food--are harvested before the seed head forms. Softneck garlic, meanwhile, is the kind most often found in stores with an indeterminate number of cloves--often layers of them--as well as a thicker skin. Because of its thicker skin, softneck garlic stores longer.

Garlic typically is planted in fall, then overwinters in the ground. Around August, Leigh orders 400 pounds of bulbs from a commercial grower in New York State. These will produce about 12,000 plants, resulting in 12,000 bulbs to be distributed to Leigh's 500 CSA subscribers.

First Leigh tilled the soil on the slope, adding some more compost. Then they planted the cloves--pointy end up--using a mechanical device pulled along behind his tractor. Two people ride on the device feeding cloves of garlic into a wheel that inserts the garlic about three inches below the soil surface, several inches apart, then covers them over. As long as you're driving the tractor straight, the method will create neat rows of garlic.

The final step is to cover the garlic with a thick mulch.

Garlic doesn't like competition from weeds. The mulch keeps weeds down as well as retaining moisture in the soil. Leigh uses hay from one of his neighbors who raises hay along with beef cattle. In exchange for selling some of the beef to his CSA subscribers, Leigh gets whatever hay hasn't been sold at the end of the season--typically 50 to 75 bails of it. The garlic field is covered over with a layer of hay about six inches thick, enough to block any sunlight that might reach the soil. "If the weed seeds don't get light, they can't grow," says Leigh.

The garlic, however, has no problem pushing its way through the hay after it sprouts. By spring the unmistakable garlic leaves--slender and pointy--are already several inches long. Leigh won't need to water the garlic much at all. "Even that drought we had a couple of years ago when I was worried about the garlic, it did okay." Nor will he be adding any additional fertilizer. Garlic likes lots of organic matter. But you don't want to feed it too much or you'll get too much foliage and not enough bulb.

When the scapes come up, sometime in June, they'll be cut and sent to subscribers as a treat in they're CSA boxes. Cutting the scapes also redirects the plants' energy toward making bigger bulgs. They'll be harvested when about two-thirds of the leaves have turned brown, usually around the end of June.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Why Do We Feed Children Like Pigs?

It used to be common practice on family farms to collect the kitchen scraps and leavings from the dinner table to feed the hogs. It was called slop. Quick, cheap, effective. No need to throw perfectly edible garbage away. Today most hogs are fed a prescribed diet in an industrial setting. But we saved the concept of slop and re-located it--to the nation's schools.

Through our national school lunch program, children who don't bring a meal from home are offered the leavings from our commodity agriculture system--low-grade meats, processed cheese, factory pizza--plus whatever the local school board cobbles together with some additional small change from the federal government. It amounts to $2.57 for students who qualify for a free lunch. But that has to pay for more than food. Subtract the cost of heating the cafeteria, delivering the meals, paying the cafeteria workers. As a caterer, I can tell you that $2.57 for a meal and all the infrastructure behind it is almost laughable.

Recently, Alice Waters proposed in the New York Times that we scrap the current system and start over, adding things like fresh, local produce to the school menu, perhaps kitchens in the schools to turn these ingredients into meals and a more generous budget--maybe $5 per meal. From the reaction of some food bloggers, you would have thought Waters had suggested serving school meals on gold-plated trays. Kids don't need to eat local produce! It doesn't need to be prepared on site! We can do it for lots less!

The subtext being, Let's not go overboard feeding good food to children. Like Olive Twist, they can get by with less. And we certainly don't want them turning into little aesthetes, do we? (The argument must roll off the lips more easily if you've never had children.)

The overheated blather culminated in a treacly mea culpa from the Times' Mark Bittman, who, writing under the headline "Elitism and School Lunch," propounded that there is "a tendency among all of us who work with food regularly to become more than a little precious about it." Speak for yourself, Mark. The only thing all of this proves is that Alice Waters may be the birth mother of fresh and local food here in the U.S., but she's not the person to lead the charge on healthy school lunches. Anything she touches will be tainted as "pretentious" and "elitist"--even when she is right.

But as my grandmother would say, Waters' critics have it ass-backwards. And fortunately there are any number of concerned parents, nutrition activists, and school agitators who have formulated the question correctly: It's not how much we can afford to spend on school lunches. It's what kind of lunches we should be providing, and how much does that cost? For starters, we can look at what actually comes out of the school lunch program and why any objective observer should be appalled by what our kids are eating in a so-called learning environment.

More than 30 million kids in this country receive a lunch at school on an average day. A study recently published in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that this is the kind of mediocre stuff being dished up in the nation's lunch rooms, as summarized on the Lunch Lessons blog:

Milk: Milk is offered in practically all schools. One percent fat milk was the most common milk served, and the majority of milk offered is flavored.

Fruit: Ninety-four percent of schools offered fruit or fruit juices. Only 50 percent of schools offered fresh fruit. The rest offered canned fruit or fruit juice.

Vegetables: This study considers starchy vegetables such as white potatoes a vegetable. By that classification, 96 percent of kids had a vegetable offering at lunch. But note that while 45 percent of high schools offered French fries, only 39 percent of schools offered lettuce salad, 29 percent offered orange or dark green vegetables, and 10 percent offered legumes.

Grains/bread: The vast majority of grain products (bread, rolls, bagels, crackers etc.) were made of refined white flour. Only 5 percent of grain offering was whole wheat.

Combination entrée: The most commonly offered combination entrée depended on age; in elementary school, 28 percent of combination entrees were peanut butter sandwiches, followed by meat sandwiches; in middle school the most commonly offered combination entree was pizza with meat, followed by cheeseburgers and sandwiches with breaded meat or poultry.

Dessert: Those were offered in 47 percent of high schools, 41 percent of middle schools and 37 percent of elementary school. The leading deserts were cookies, cakes and brownies.

From that, the kids choose the worst of the worst. This, according to the study, is what they are actually eating:

Milk: Seventy-five percent of kids drank milk, mostly 1 percent fat, and mostly flavored.

Fruit: Forty-five percent of kids ate some fruit; most of the fruit eaten was canned. Only 16 percent of kids overall had fresh fruit, and among high school kids it was only 8 percent.

Vegetables: Fifty-one percent of kids overall had some kind of vegetable, but that includes French fries. Lettuce salads were eaten by 6 percent of kids, orange or dark green vegetables were eaten by 6 percent, and legumes by 2 percent. French fries were eaten by 34 percent of high school kids.

Grains/bread: Thirty-four percent of kids had grain products. Only 1 percent of grain products eaten were whole wheat.

Combination entrée: 75 percent of kids selected these entrees, the most popular of which were pizza, sandwiches with breaded meat, fish or poultry, hamburgers or hot dogs.

Dessert: Thirty-eight percent of kids had dessert, mostly consisting of cookies cake and brownies or candy.

The problem with this picture, of course, is that the food kids consume on the school lunch plan doesn't even rise to the minimum level set forth in the federal government's own dietary standards. And that's because this "food" is conveniently cheap, cheap, cheap--the very dregs of what our system has to offer.

By comparison, those vile French spend three times as much on their shcool lunches. And listen to this account account of what the French kids eat:

"At one school, students were served a choice of salads — mâche with smoked duck and fava beans, or mâche with smoked salmon and asparagus — followed by guinea fowl with roasted potatoes and carrots and steamed broccoli. For dessert, there was a choice of ripe, red-throughout strawberries or clafoutis. A pungent washed-rind cheese was offered, along with French bread and water. Yes, the kids took and ate the cheese.

"French schoolchildren eat in brightly colored lunchrooms. Lunch hour includes exercise and lasts for two hours. Our second meal was a little simpler, but then, the kids were younger, too. Children served themselves a butter lettuce salad from a bowl set on the table. The main dish was mashed potatoes with a sauce of ground beef (delicious!). Bread and water again were offered as well as the pungent cheese, and a choice of fresh strawberries or a little pastry."

In France, the schools have their own kitchens, their own pantries, their own fresh ingredients. (But of course, the French also think people are entitled to free health care and we wouldn't want to be caught doing anything the sissy French way--would we?)

So what would it cost to change the dismal U.S. menu to meet even minimal standards--cut back on the sugars, the refined starches, the salt and canned goods and introduce more healthful protein, unprocessed fruits and vegetables, whole grains? That, of course, is the million dollar question. But does it really matter? Could we swallow $5 a meal if that's what it took? Or $6? Or $8?

No, the ingredients for wholesome meals don't have to arrive fresh off the farm. But agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack has said that introducing more fresh, local food into school meals is a goal of the Obama administration and he is supported by a broad segment of farmers and food activists. There are many good reasons to support local agriculture. Using it to feed school children is just one of them. Could the meals be cooked off-site? Certainly. Schools could go on as they are, serving mainly as heat-and-serve stations. But obviously the French manage to do it and the British think in-house cooking is important enough that they have mandated cooking classes for all secondary school children by 2011. There are even programs right here in the U.S. that take food and children seriously. As someone who regularly teaches kids about food--where it comes from, why we eat what we eat, how to cook it--I can tell you that children are keenly interested in the subject. You might be surprised how many routinely watch Food Network and Iron Chef.

Do we care enough about our kids to feed them good food? The old axiom applies: garbage in, garbage out. If we feed our kids slop, we should expect them to continue eating slop when they grow older. No, what we feed children does matter, and we should stop training them to be our future diabetics and cardiac patients. (Many of them are already showing the symptoms: 40 percent of the children in the study cited above were overweight.) It's not only time we fed them to be healthy, but taught them about food as a life lesson they will carry with them into adulthood. If President Obama is serious about children and school lunches, he should make revamping the school lunch program a priority. Appoint a White House commission to draw us a blueprint for doing exactly what Alice Water suggested: scrap the school lunch program and replace it with something our kids deserve.

Then tell us how much it will cost.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Ethanol: Obama's Deal with the Devil

Don't look now but the Obama adminstration is making good on our worst fears, ramping up the pressure for NOT less but MORE ethanol.

Obama's agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack this week announced that he is all in favor a proposal from Midwestern aggies to raise the amount of ethanol that can be blended into a gallon of gasoline from 10 perent to "15 percent or more."

Vilsack, of course, is the former governor of Iowa where they grow a lot of corn. Barack Obama is the former senator from Illinois, the nation's fifth most important corn growing state. Turning corn into ethanol has become quite the cash cow for states like Iowa (which propelled Barack to the Democratic presidential nomination, after all) and Illinois.

It seems like only yesterday we were writing about how the diversion of corn into ethanol had led to a spike in food prices worldwide, causing hunger and even food riots in desperate developing countries as well as a tortilla crisis in Mexico. And we now know how the ethanol process pollutes air and water, to say nothing of the environmental damage caused by all the artificial fertilizers and persticides used to pave so much of the country in corn. Farmers were even taking land out of conservation in the rush to plant more corn.

In our current down economy, however, people are driving their cars less, which means less demand for ethanol. The ethanol industry has fallen on hard times, it seems, and was even begging for its own bailout as part of Obama's stimulus package. Apparently the next best thing is to petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to increase the limit on how much ethanol can be blended into gasoline. The EPA has the authority to do that, but it might just be blocked from doing so by a recent Supreme Court ruling that carbon must be regulated as a pollutant.

Until industry finds something more people- and environment-friendly than corn to use as fuel, we hope corn ethanol is seen for what it is: another way to make money for a misguided agriculture system. This is just one more reason for us to not like the idea of a White House kitchen garden. We can't let Obama make nookie with locavores behind the White House while his actual policies are wreaking havoc on the rest of the country. No, Obama should be judged like every other president: on substance, not symoblic gestures.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Kids Make Chicken Tacos

Here's an excellent use for the leftover chicken in your refrigerator: Roll it up in a taco with fresh salsa, cheese and lettuce for a snack or an easy, healthful meal.

After many months of practice, it is astounding to see the cutting skills the kids in our "food appreciation" classes have learned as they prepped the vegetables for this lesson. They made quick work of the tomatoes and onions in the salsa and were soon on to the chicken.

Originally I had proposed this dish a "Guatemalan burrito" as we continue our way south on our virtual world food tour. But when someone asked "What makes it Guatemalan?" I didn't have a very good explanation. In fact, for the life of me I couldn't find a standout Gautemalan food. Perhaps a reader will point me to one.

More than anything, this taco is typical of what you might see in any fonda or food stall in Mexico, or throughout Central America, for that matter. We used corn tortillas, not flour. The tortillas labeled as "Salvadoran" in our markets here in the District of Columbia seem to be much thicker and would probably hold together better in the eating.

Yet simple and convenient it is. If you don't have leftover chicken, simply bake two chicken breasts or thighs in the oven and set them aside to cool. Meanwhile, make a fresh salsa by cutting two or three ripe plum tomatoes into small dice. Toss in a bowl with 1/4 cup diced onion and a small fistful of cilantro leaves. Stir in a squeeze of lime and season with salt.

Tear the chicken into small pieces or cut it into small strips. Next, shred about 1 cup lettuce. Crumble about 2 ounces queso fresco, or fresh cheese. Present the chicken the fresh vegetables and the cheese at the table along with a plate of warm tortillas. Let everyone build their own taco. You might also have some crema, or sour cream, on the side as a further garnish.

I'll bet you can't eat just one.

Exhibit A

Regard, the belly.

Belly fat is now considered a harbinger of heart disease, along with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Since I have all three, and since I am of an age when these things become a real concern, and since my father recently experienced quadruple bypass surgery, I have decided to restrict carbohydrates from my diet and lose 35 pounds. Or even a little more.

This picture was taken yesterday, eight days after I started my new food regimen. I've lost eight pounds (about one pound per day) while attempting to get "ketotic," that state when the body, deprived of carbohydrates, thinks it is starving and begins digesting its own fat. I now weigh 210 pounds. My goal is 180.

I wish I had had blood work performed immediately before I took the low-carb plunge. My previous results, from December 2007, showed a total cholesterol level of 201, with HDL (good cholesterol) at 43 and LDL (bad cholesterol) at 122. My total triglycerides were 178. My most recent blood exam was a week ago, or more than a year after I started taking Liptor to reduce my cholesterol and four days after I started the low-carb diet. It showed that my total cholesterol had actually risen to 211. My HDL had slumped slightly to 41, while LDL had gone up to 149. But I was very glad to see that my triglyceride level, a very real measure of cardiac risk, had plummeted to 103, a drop of 42 percent.

Naturally, my doctor was less interested in my triglycerides than increasing my dosage of Lipitor and getting me to eat less fat. You can hardly blame him. The current dogma of the medical establishment is that fat raises cholesterol and needs to be treated with a statin drug such as Lipitor. But in fact this is merely a hypothesis. Doctors still doesn't know exactly what causes heart disease or what role cholesterol--especially dietary cholesterol--might play. I am convinced that carbohydrates, because of their singular relationship with insulin and the way the body stores fat, is the greater culprit.

In fact, 80 percent of cholesterol is produced by our own bodies, in the liver. The extent to which we produce our own cholesterol and what our bodies do with it is largely a matter of genetics. We can't change genetics. But that leaves only 20 percent of cholesterol related to what we eat. I am more inclined to believe that the huge effect that carbohydrates have on insulin production, and the direct relationship between insulin and body fat, outweighs the 20 percent of cholesterol that we control with our diet.

The American diet has become a runaway buffet of carbohydrates based on a government-subsidized glut of corn and other grains. Walk into any supermarket and you can see it: aisle after aisle--floor to ceiling--of carbohydrates in a thousand different manifestations. Kids go to school on a breakfast of potato chips and high-fructose corn syrup. Our most popular vegetable by far is the potato, usually in the form of French fries. We are a nation of irrepressible snackers. Call it the Great Carb Addiction.

The problem is that all those carbs force the pancreas to work overtime making insulin. Insulin turns the carbs into glucose for energy, but if we already have enough glucose, the sugar gets stored as fat. Accumulated fat presses on the organs, causing high blood pressure. Pretty soon you're looking at cholesterol out of balance followed by insulin resistance and diabetes.

Sharply reducing carbohydrates brings insulin back to a sane level. Although it sounds counterintuitive, a body deprived of carbohydrates and in a state of ketosis will actually process fats out faster than they come in. A metabolic transformation occurs. You can consume more calories and continue to lose weight. But it is common for people who eat a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet to consume fewer calories than before, even when they are told they can eat all the steak and pork chops they want. The reason is, you don't feel as hungry when you stop eating carbohydrates. I know that in my own case I am rarely hungry any more since cutting back sharply on my carb consumption.

"You ought to add up the calories in all the food you eat all day. I think you'd be astounded," my wife was fond of scolding me. That's because I was always snacking on something, usually some form of carbohydrate. And since I work at home, food is never far away. Well, I never did add it all up. But I know I am eating much less now and the cravings have disappeared. Carbohydrates are a bad habit.

Nine years ago I stopped smoking. It wasn't easy, and the final cigarette was lit only after years of trying to quit. I'm hoping that as a result of this new approach to food, and a better appreciation for the sinister effects of a carb-rich diet, I will soon break the carbohydrate addiction as well.

Note: A healthy level of total cholesterol is considered to anywhere from 100 to 199; HDL 40 to 59; LDL anything under 100. Triglycerides, according to current thinking, should be less than 150. All measurements are milligrams per deciliter. Also, the suggested healthy ratio of triglycerides to HDL cholesterol is anything less that 5:1.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Schools & Community Gardens

Walking my daughter to school each morning, I often looked wistfully at the huge expanse of yard next to Cardozo Senior High School and thought what a wonderfully productive garden it would make. All that space with a clear southern and western exposure. What a shame to pave it over with grass that no one ever used (except to fly a kite sometimes).

Well, the flattest part of the yard, actually a complex of asphalt basketball courts, recently was turn into a parking lot. Too bad. But there's still plenty of yard that could be gardened. Come to think of it, after the federal government, the District of Columbia school system is one of the largest property owners in the city. There are dozens of large campuses and hundreds of smaller school yards all over town. Why do we plant them with grass? Why not turn them into food gardens? Even better, why not turn them into community gardens that everyone could use to grow local food?

For the last couple of years I worked with an organization that was all about promoting school gardens and trying to integrate gardening into school curricula. It was a tough slog. But I think it might be more successful if, instead of trying to organize gardens strictly within the school, the efforts were expanded to bring in the entire community. Turn school gardens into community gardens.

Of course, someone's already done it. And here's an excellent article about a group in Petaluma, California, that is bringing community and schools together to establish gardens and a CSA to help feed the hungry. They also work with a group that focuses solely on gleaning, or collecting unharvested fruits from people's back yards.

Humans can be so resourceful when they put their minds to it.

Mulching Garlic

I like to mulch with straw. Straw gives the garden a natty look, like the gardener really knows what he's doing. Ha! And really I should have mulched my garlic beds when I planted them last fall. But I haven't been particularly thrilled with straw mulch around garlic. It seems like the weeds always manage to find a place to grow through the straw. So this year looking at the same issue again I thought I'd try to make the straw thicker by chopping it up. This has the added advantage of making the mulch easier to lay around the garlic leaves--if you waited until spring to mulch as I did.

Here's my chopper: the trusty leaf pulverizer. It's really just a weed whacker (line trimmer) in a can, a small motor turning two lengths of plastic line at great speed. Like a food processor, you just drop your vegetable matter--usually leaves in the fall, straw at the moment--from the top. The Whirring plastic line chops it to pieces and it all falls conveniently into the trash can underneath. I always seem to have at least one pile of rotting straw somewhere in the garden, usually last year's mulch.

The trash can practically carries itself to the garlic bed, where I spend an hour or so arranging the chopped straw around the plants, about two inches thick. I like the idea of foraging for mulch on site, rather than buying something in a plastic bag from the garden center. In the past I tried mixing chopped leaves and shredded newspaper together for mulch. But the newspaper liked to blow around too much in the wind. Now I'm thinking the straw could easily be stretched by mixing in some of the shredded leaves I've been saving from last fall. The first job of mulch is to hold moisture in the soil. But it also does a good job of suppressing weeds, and garlic doesn't care much for weeds.

How do you like to mulch your garlic?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Family Gardening

I spent most of my Sunday taking advantage of spring-like weather to work in the garden--preparing beds, mulching and planting seeds. Apparently I gave the impression that this was so much fun that daughter, home from a long bike ride with Mom, came running over to join me. "Where I can I plant my garden, Dad?" she wanted to know.

I sent her inside to fetch the seed packets and she carefully searched through the flowers and decided she would plant Sweet William. So we marked off an area in the soon-to-be bean bed and she did all the work herself--reading the instructions on the seed pack, fluffing the soil, making little holes and planting the seeds. Here she is smoothing everything over. She then ran off to fill the watering can.

Only fellow parents will fully appreciate what a turnaround this is for a child who normally would be impossible to dislodge from her seat in front of the computer. Is this just spring fever? Or could it be we have a junior gardener in the family? Dad would be ever so grateful for an extra pair of hands.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Winter's Revenge

Leigh Hauter said he never saw it coming.

"I didn't realize it was getting that cold," he said of the afternoon the Big Freeze descended. "We went for a walk and the water in the boiler was already frozen."

The wood-fired boiler in question is the one that heats farmer Hauter's greenhouse and his thousands of new seedlings. They represent nothing less than his spring crops for the coming CSA season. If he couldn't somehow get his frozen boiler working again in the face of a near-record March cold snap, he was looking at thousands of dollars in damage.

Leigh rose early the next morning and got to work trying to feed fresh water to the boiler. That meant hauling many hundreds of feet of fresh plastic pipe up Bull Run Mountain to the artesian well that supplies his water. The old 1 1/4"-inch water pipe was not only frozen solid after a night of temperatures dipping into single digits, it had burst open in several places.

Soon Leigh's water-soaked gloves were frozen as well, then his hands as he struggled into the second day to replace the pipes. A blast of wind ripped off his hat and made his work seem all the more desperate. Meanwhile, thousands of trays of seedlings inside the greenhouse were beginning to feel the effects. The potting soil was freezing. The seedlings were wilting.

After two days of this, the return of winter--in the form of a nasty cold front that had dumped snow from Birmingham in the deep south all the way to Boston--finally moved out to sea and Leigh surveyed the damage. He called a nursery in Indiana and placed an order for replacement seedlings that set him back at least $2,000.

But look here. As the greenhouse thawed again, there were signs of life where none could rightly be expected. Tiny seedlings, barely an inch tall, had managed to survive even when the soil they were rooted it had frozen stiff. "It's amazing, isn't it?" said Leigh as he reached down to inspect his little broccoli plants. "The sorrel wasn't affected at all," he says, pointing to plastic trays where hundreds of sprouts are growing.

So it is back to getting ready for a new year at Bull Run Farm outside The Plains, Virginia. Leigh continues to plant and water his seed trays. Meanwhile, his CSA subscribers are ready for a new season as well. Sunday was an open house wherein subscribers were invited out to the farm for tours and to collect their own eggs. Leigh has two busy chicken tractors in the fields. At one, the chicks that arrived last October just a day old are now full-grown and have started laying eggs.

Around the other tractor, the chickens mingle with geese strutting and honking around the enclosure, as well as several heritage turkeys that have formed a gobbling chorus. Leigh uses the geese to perform weeding chores on the farm. But apparently they also like to eat chicken eggs, so Leigh has the nesting area covered with a tarp. He pulls back the tarp and we collect a dozen eggs, all laid within the last couple of hours and still warm.

Leigh had expected a few visitors but instead several dozen subscribers showed up. He'd been giving tours all morning. I wondered if our current economic hard times had not discouraged CSA subscriptions and Leigh calculated that out of about 500 subscribers, a dozen or so had recently "come up with excuses to back out." But wife Wenonah said others are joining, and not because they are fanatic about local food but because "they just don't trust the food at the supermarket anymore and they heard about us."

The Hauters were a bit aggravated when the visitors drove their vehicles over newly planted rye crops. The rye is a cover to provide fertility for fields where Leigh plans to plant vegetables in June. It looks just like grass, which it is. On a sloping area outside the greenhouse Leigh's field of garlic is several inches tall, the little plants raising their heads above a thick mulch of hay.

Bull Run Farm is set back in a narrow, thickly forested valley. It's hard to imagine how Leigh and Wenonah grow crops on the mountainside. But as you walk about, you see clearings here and there where a plastic-covered hoop house abuts a field, indicating an area that soon will be planted with broccoli and Chinese cabbage and sorrel.

This day temperatures would climb over 70 degrees. The last blast of winter was already fading into memory.