Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Little Compost with that Latte?

Did you know that Starbucks has a corporate policy of making its used coffee grounds available free as a soil amendment or composting ingredient?

For months I've been working up to introducing myself to our neighborhood Starbucks and starting regular pickups of grounds for my compost pile. A fellow gardener here in the District of Columbia is a prolific composter and coffee grounds have become one of his primary ingredients. He attached a trailer to his bicycle and pedals around town, stopping at various Starbucks stores and harvesting their used grounds.

I don't plan on using coffee grounds quite to that extent. But coffee grounds do contain a fair amount of nitrogen and therefore are considered--along with grass clippings and other kitchen scraps--a "green" material to be mixed with "browns" such as leaves and newspaper in the compost pile. Nitrogen feeds the bacteria that heat up the pile and ignite the decomposition process.

So this week I finally introduced myself to the local Starbucks. The manager on duty looked surprised when I told her what I wanted. She'd never heard of the Starbucks coffee grounds policy, and apparently no one had ever asked for the used grounds at that particular store before. Nevertheless, she took my contact information and promised to have a bag of grounds ready for me to pick up later in the week.

Imagine my chagrin when I entered the store at the appointed hour and found a different manager on duty. No grounds had been saved for me. I was very disappointed. But then this particular manager--Vanessa is her name--explained that she had seen my note and knew all about composting with coffee grounds. She had moved from a Starbucks location in California where they are quite used to giving away their used grounds to gardeners. "We even have tags that we put on the bags explaining how to compost with the coffee grounds," she explained.

Even though the grounds had not been saved for me as promised, Vanessa would not let me walk away empty-handed. "We have some bags of expired beans," she said cheerily. "Would you like me to grind them up for you?"

You bet I would. So I waited while Vanessa ran 15 pounds of coffee beans through the grinder and bagged them for me. Here you see them waiting to be mixed into the compost pile I started last fall.

Coffee grounds are slightly acidic but entirely organic matter, making them a suitable soil amendment all on their own. Once the micro-organisms start feeding on them, the nitrogen contained in the grounds is slowly released to feed your garden plants. Coffee grounds also contain potassium, calcium and magnesium. Both Starbucks and Sunset magazine have run tests on coffee grounds to identify specific nutrients.

Unless it's decaf, I don't drink coffee anymore. But I can easily see these free coffee grounds becoming addictive. Thanks, Vanessa. And thanks, Starbucks, for thinking of us composters.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Kids Make Guacamole in the Molcajete

Where did the people of Mexico learn to speak Spanish?

The answer is simple enough: the Spanish conquistadors who invaded and subdued Mexico hundreds of years ago. But the question points up the fact that there were people living in what we now call Mexico long before the Europeans arrived. Whether Olmec or Aztec or Mayan, they all had their own cultures, languages and foods.

Thus the kids in our "food appreciation classes" learned that "guacamole"--the stuff you typically order as an appetizer at your local Tex-Mex restaurant--derives from the ancient Nahuatl word for avocado: ahuacatl, meaning "testicle" (because of the shape of the avocado or the pit inside?). The Nahuatl word molli means a sauce or a mix. Put them together you get ahuacamolli, or "guacamole."

Guacamole usually is prepared by simply chopping onion and tomato and tossing it with avocado. We prefer to make ours in a traditional Mexican mortar and pestle--or molcajete e tejolote--carved out of volcanic basalt stone. Grinding the ingredients brings out all the flavorful oils, making our guacamole especially vibrant. Kids will spend the whole day grinding things in the molcajete if you give them the chance.

1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeds and veins removed and chopped fine
1/4 white onion, diced small
2 ripe Haas avocados
1 small ripe tomato, diced small
a small fistful of cilantro leaves

In the molcajete, grind the cumin seeds and salt together into a fine powder. Add the jalapeno and grind almost into a paste. Add white onion and grind until you have what looks like a slushy green relish at the bottom of the molcajete.

Cut the avocados in half with a sharp chef's knife, first piercing an avocado all the way to the pit inside, then rotating the avocado lengthwise against the knife blade 360 degrees. Set the knife down and twist the two halves of the avocado, separating them. To remove the pit, hold the avocado half in the palm of one hand and with the other hand strike the pit with the blade of your knife. The pit should hold to the knife. Just twist it out of the avocado meat and toss the pit away. Now use a paring knife to score the meat in both halves of the avocado in a cross-hatch pattern all the way to the inside of the peel (don't cut the peel.) Use a spoon to scoop the meat into the molcajete--if you scored it properly, the meat should fall apart into large dice.

Add the tomatoes and most of the cilantro to the mix and toss thoroughly with your spoon to combine. Mash the avocado a little as you go, but not too much. You want some texture to your finished guacamole, not a paste. Adjust seasoning as desired. Garnish with the remaining cilantro and present the guacamole in the molcajete with your favorite corn chips.

Note: we don't normally add lime or lemon juice to our guacamole but you may certainly do so if you like.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Food Lessons for Hard Times

To hear the economists tell it, times may be getting even worse before they get better. Some people have already been forced to tighten their belts. For others, it's time to think about tightening belts even further. Still, there's a silver lining to these austere developments: Less consumption by us humans is better for the planet. It might even prompt people to start thinking of ways they can consume more wisely and tread lighter in the process.

For those of you looking for ways to eat smarter for less, here are some thoughts accumulated over the last two years writing this blog:

* Eat less. Not only will you pay less for food, your body will reward you with better health. With all the different kinds of diets admonishing you to eat that but don't eat that, we lose sight of the fact that the easiest way to lose weight is to cut back on portion size. The latest studies confirm that it's not carbs or proteins so much as the number of calories we consume that influences our waist lines most. Slimming down and keeping the weight off relieves all kinds of stress on vital organs, prolonging life.

*Stop eating processed and refined foods. There are many reasons to reject food from factories. First, they contain all kinds of chemical additives and industrialized oils that previously were never part of the human diet, such as corn and soybean oil. Processed foods also contain too much sodium, which contributes to high blood pressure. Refined grains raise glycemic levels, a cause of diabetes. Despite these health consequences, corporations such as General Mills and Pepsi think of all kinds of ways to persuade you buy their products because the extra money you pay for them earns profits for their shareholders.

* Buy from the bulk section. The previously mentioned processed foods all come in packaging, much of it plastic made from petroleum, that just ends up in the landfill. Even if you recycle paper and cardboard packaging it's still more environmentally friendly to purchase foods that don't have any packaging at all. And you pay extra for the packaging. These are all good reasons to buy your foods from the bulk section whenever possible. If your local store doesn't have a bulk section, talk to the manager and urge her to start one.

* Buy whole foods whenever possible. Unfortunately, the federal government does not subsidize the growing of healthy fruits and vegetables the way it subsidizes the growing of corn and soybeans. That means the most nutritious food at the grocery store is the most expensive, while the foods that are most harmful are the cheapest. Still, the best source of nutrition is food that has not been adulterated in any way, the stuff you find in the produce section. Potatoes and sweet potatoes, broccoli and cabbage, carrots and parsnips--they are all loaded with good nutrition. So are whole grains of all kinds and dried beans. If you can afford it, start buying your produce from the local farmers market. Not only will you know exactly where your food is coming from, you will be helping to support your local agricultural economy, not some giant agribusiness a thousand miles away.

* Eat less protein from animals. Our bodies must have protein, but we've grown too accustomed to getting it from beef cows and pigs and chickens. Feeding these animals in order to deliver them to your dinner plate is expensive and it has environmental consequences. Most animals for consumption are now raised on huge feedlots that produce tons of pollution that ends up in our waters and in our air. They and all the fuels used to feed and transport them contribute mightily to global warming. Try getting more of your protein from eggs--especially the kind produced on pastures instead of giant hen houses. Eggs are still a nutritional bargain, even when they're $4.75 a dozen at the farmers market. Also work more dried beans and whole grains into your diet. Together they make a complete protein and they are much cheaper than meat. The next step up would be chicken. Chickens (look for "pasture raised") are much more efficient producers of protein than cows or pigs.

* Stop buying wild-caught fish. Have you checked the price of tuna or swordfish lately? Prices have gone through the roof because there are fewer and fewer fish to be caught. Humans are rapidly destroying the oceans. If you must buy wild-caught fish, check first with a reputable rating agency such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch program to make sure you are buying only fish that has been sustainably harvested. Otherwise, look for fish raised on farms in the U.S., such as catfish, tilapia, striped bass or shrimp. These have the further advantage of being cheaper than most wild-caught fish. Another excellent protein source is farmed shell fish such as clams, oyster and mussels. For my money, farmed mussels are a great seafood bargain. Just make sure they carry a U.S. or Canada label. If you are pregnant, breast feeding or otherwise concerned about having enough Omega 3 in your diet, be assured that there are other sources besides fish.

* Stop drinking bottled water. Bottled water is outrageously expensive and Americans throw away something on the order of 80 million plastic water bottles every day, to say nothing of all the fuel being used to make the bottles and transport them from factory to store. In most places, ordinary tap water is just as good if not better for you than the bottled variety. If you must drink water out of a bottle, save your last bottle and fill it from the tap.

*Stop drinking soda. Whether it's Coke, Pepsi or Mountain Dew, sodas are loaded with sugar that rots teeth and helps make people (especially children) fat. Americans consume way too much soda. Plus, sodas are a major contributor to our plastic bottle and aluminum can nightmare. Diet sodas are only marginally better, in that you eliminate the sugar. But in the process you consume industrialized chemicals posing as sweeteners. Is it possible we could grow to like water again?

* Don't eat out so much. It may not help your local fast-food restaurant if you start eating more at home. But the fact is food from restaurants and especially fast food joints is not particularly good for you and typically the portions are much bigger than what you need. It just helps put on unhealthy poundage. If you are using whole ingredients and healthy oils such as extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil, just about anything you make at home is bound to be more nutritious and likely cheaper than what you get eating out. Making food at home and sitting down to a meal at the dinner table also teaches valuable lessons to children and helps strengthen the family unit. Get your kids out from in front of the TV and into the kitchen helping you make dinner.

* Start a kitchen garden. You can solve many of your budget and nutritional issues by growing your own food. A package of broccoli seeds costs less than $3 and typically contains 300 hundred or more seeds. That works out to about a penny for every head of broccoli you grow. How does that compare to what you are paying at the store? There is very little in the produce section or at the farmers market that you cannot grow yourself, including all your most expensive favorites: strawberries, blueberries, asparagus, rhubarb, artichokes. There's nothing tricky about growing mounds of your own potatoes or sweet potatoes. Or beans and tomatoes. You can fill your pantry and your freezer with enough food for the whole year. Don't have a yard you can turn into a garden? Join your nearest community garden. And if there isn't a community garden in your area, start one.

Or perhaps you have some other great ideas for shaving the food budget? Feel free to leave a comment....

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Venison Goulash with Handmade Whole Wheat Noodles

We recently traded some of our canned goods with a neighbor for a load of venison killed on a farm in downstate Virginia. Most of the package consisted of two entire rump sections of the animal. I spent the better part of an afternoon removing silver skin and cutting stew meat.

Most of that went into the freezer for another day but I was anxious to try it. As anyone who's tasted venison can tell you (my wife would be happy to share a few thoughts on the subject) venison is extremely lean. That can be a good thing if you are trying to cut down on fat. But it does leave the meat dry. It needs to be well sauced.

I went looking for a different sort of venison stew recipe and adapted a "goulash" or "Gulgas di Capriolo" published by Mario Batali. Mario and I share a taste for rustic treatments. Besides the usual herbs and aromatics, this one calls for cinnamon and cloves. A generous scoop of sour cream is stirred into the pot at the last minute.

To accompany the meat my daughter and I rolled out some wide, whole-wheat noodles. My wife thought the meat was still a bit dry and not up to the beef chuck she loves so much. (Keep in mind, she's preoccupied with her concern over prions in the venison.) Well, there's no arguing with the fact that venison is lean. But the noodles did lap up the sauce very nicely. Wash it down with your favorite bottle of red wine.

For the goulash:

2 pounds venison shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 carrot, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 ribs celery, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 sprig fresh thyme
3 sage leaves
3 cloves garlic
3 peppercorns
3 juniper berries
2/3 bottle dry red wine
1/4 cup lard
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 ounces speck or thick bacon, cut into 1/4-inch dice
3/4 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
Grated Montasio or Romano cheese, for garnish

In a bowl, mix venison, carrot, celery and onion. Make a spice sachet by tying in cheesecloth the rosemary, thyme, sage, garlic, peppercorns and juniper berries. Bury the spice sachet in the meat and cover everything with the red wine. Place bowl in the refrigerator, covered, for 24 hours.

When meat has fully marinated, remove each piece from the liquid and dry thoroughly with paper towels. Season meat generously with salt and pepper, reserving the marinade. Melt the lard in a heavy skillet over moderately high heat and brown the venison pieces in batches, setting the venison aside on a plate.

While pot is still hot, brown the speck or bacon. Reduce heat and add flour. Stir to incorporate all the fat and cook a minute or two. Pour the marinade and all its contents into the pot. Bring to a boil and stir in cinnamon and cloves. Scrape any brown bits off the bottom of the pot. Cook a minute or two until the liquid has thickened, then add the meat. Reduce heat to low setting, cover and simmer until the meat is completely tender, about 1 1/2 hours.

Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the sour cream just before serving.

For the noodles:

Mix 1 cup all-purpose flour and 1 cup whole wheat flour in a mound on a clean work surface. Make a well in the mound and add two eggs. Break up the eggs with a fork and gradually incorporate the flour into the eggs, working around the edges of the well. When the eggs and flour have mixed, push the dough into a rough ball and knead for several minutes. The dough may be a bit tough, owing to the whole wheat flour. You may have to press it hard into the work surface with the heel of your hand.

When the dough is holding together, divide the ball into quarters. Take one quarter portion dough and roll it through your pasta machine at the lowest setting at least a dozen times to continue the kneading process. Begin increasing the setting of the rollers up to number 6 or 7, depending on your desired thickness. You should have a fairly long piece of pasta. Cut it into three or four lengths and dust each with all-purpose flour. Roll up each piece into a cigar shape and, using a very sharp knife, cut into 1-inch pieces. Each piece will unroll into a noodle. Place these on a baking sheet while you continue to roll out and cut the other portions of dough.

When the noodles are done, drop them into a big pot of boiling, salted water. They will cook in about two minutes. You should have enough for at least six portions. Use tongs to divide the pasta into warm bowls. Spoon goulash with plenty of sauce over the noodles. Garnish with grated cheese and parsley.

Top photo by Leila Bruske

Monday, February 23, 2009

Prize Worthy Sweet Potato Galette

How did the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission know we are growing our own sweet potatoes?

I just received an e-mail urging me to enter a "bloggers recipe contest" sponsored by the sweet potato commission. I might have blown it off, but the reward for best recipe is $1,000. That got me thinking maybe I should post one of our favorite methods for putting sweet potatoes on the dinner table--this sweet potato galette.

A potato galette in the French country style traditionally is made with standard potatoes. But we love sweet potatoes--they are so nutritious and full of flavor--and now we harvest them out of our own kitchen garden, right here in the District of Columbia about a mile from the White House. One day I was trying to think of a way to incorporate sweet potatoes with something else we grow plenty of: greens. And to continue the local theme, I decided to add one of our favorite Maryland cheeses. Why not layer them all together? The sweet potato galette was born.
To make the galette, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Coat the bottom of a well-seasoned, cast-iron skillet with extra virgin olive oil and place it over moderate heat. Peel three large sweet potatoes and slice them into thin rounds. (A mandoline makes quick work of this.) Shingle the rounds to cover the bottom of the skillet. The bottom-most potatoes will begin to cook and brown while you are assembling the rest. Between each layer, dot the potatoes with cooked greens, such as mustard greens or kale or collard greens. Or, better yet, a combination of greens. You will need about one pound of cooked greens total.

Alternate layers of cheese. I've used a soft Gorgonzola in the past. But for a strictly local galette, I bought a piece of blue goat's milk cheese from Firefly Farms in Bittinger, MD. Firefly is one of the regular vendors at the Dupont Circle market. Between each layer, after you've capped it off with more potatoes, press down very firmly with a flat object, such as a pot lid or another skillet. Then season with olive oil, salt and black pepper.

Continue layering the galette until the skillet is nearly filled to the top. Place in the oven and bake until the potatoes are easily pierced with a metal trussing skewer, about 20 minutes. Remove the skillet and allow the galette to cool. To remove the galette from the skillet, use a knife or spatula to cut around the edge, then invert it onto a large plate or cutting board.

This galette is delicious warm or even at room temperature, and it can easily be made ahead and reheated. The sweetness of the potatoes seems to meld exceptionally well with the pungency of the cheese and the pleasant bitterness of the greens. Try it with your favorite local salad and a crisp glass of Chablis. Or if you've got a particular hankering for meat, this galette would be an ideal partner for a juicy pork roast.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Overwintered Carrot Cake

My wife, the baker in the family, took one look at our recent harvest of overwintered carrots and knew what she had to make: carrot cake.

I know what you are thinking: There could hardly be anything more mundane than carrot cake. But trust me: once you've made it with carrots you've grown in your own garden, carrots that have been storing themselves in the ground and getting sweeter all winter long just waiting for you to think of something to do with them--once you have some of those carrots to work with your carrot cake will rise to something special indeed.

Plus, my wife does not make ordinary things. Her baked goods invariably are extraordinary. This particular carrot cake is infused with the flavor of ginger and topped with an orange-cream cheese frosting. We liked the first one so much (meaning it lasted until maybe the next day) that she made it again and cut it into these cheery little morsels to serve at our recent chilaquiles brunch. It wasn't long before the only thing left on the buffet were a few crumbs.

Here's the recipe as found in The New Best Recipe, from the editors of Cook's Illustrated:

For the cake:

2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pound carrots, peeled
1/2 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 1/2 cups canola oil

Place an oven rack in the middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 13 by 9-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper and spray the paper as well.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.

Shred the carrots using the shredding attachment in a food processor(there should be about 3 cups). Add carrots and crystallized ginger to bowl with dry ingredients and set aside. Wipe out food processor and fit with metal blade. Process granulated and brown sugars with eggs and orange zest until frothy and thoroughly combined, about 20 seconds. With machine running, add oil through feed tube in a steady stream. Process until the mixture is light in color and well emulsified, about 20 seconds longer. (Note: these steps could also be done using an ordinary box grater, a mixing bowl with a whisk and some elbow grease.) Scrape the mixture into a large bowl. Stir in the carrots and dry ingredients and mix until everything is fully incorporated. Pour mix into prepared baking pan and bake until a toothpick or skewer inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes, rotating the pan from front to back halfway through the baking time. Cool the cake to room temperature in the pan on a wire rack, at least 2 hours.

For the frosting:

8 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool
5 tabelspoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 1/2 cups (5 ounces) confectioners' sugar

When the cake is cool, process the cream cheese, butter, orange juice and orange zest in a clean food procewssor until combined, about 5 seconds, scraping down the workbowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Add the confections' sugar and process until smooth, about 10 seconds.

Run a paring knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Invert the cake onto a wire rack, peel off the parchment and invert the cake onto a serving platter or cake stand. Using an offset spatula, spread the frosting evenly over the surface of the cake. Cut into squares and serve.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A New Season on the Farm

This is the first in what we hope will be a regular series of articles about Leigh Hauter and his CSA operation at Bull Run Farm in The Plains, Virginia. Leigh has been farming in the Washington area for 15 years, first at the Cheseapeake Bay Foundation's Clagett Farm in Prince George's County. He was involved in early efforts to bring a farmers market to underserved residents of the District of Columbia east of the Anacostia River. Leigh now has about 500 subscribers to his CSA. His wife Wenonah is executive director of the advocacy group Food and Water Watch.

Signs of life are beginning to appear on the farm. For Leigh Hauter, that means ramping up the heating system in his greenhouse--fixing leaky pipes, lighting the furnace and planting seeds.

A constant temperature of at least 70 degrees is necessary to prompt germination in thousands of pepper and eggplant seeds. Leigh has a fairly new, high-efficiency furnace fired by the wood that grows on the farm. The system runs hot water--90 to 100 degrees--through copper pipes under his seed trays, giving the seeds a nice warm bed in which to sprout and keeping the greenhouse toasty when nighttime temperatures dip.

Leigh is aiming for a last frost date of April 15, so he's planting things now that typically require at least eight weeks in seed trays before they can be safely transplanted outdoors. That means peppers and eggplants by the thousands. He's planted at least eight different varieties of bell peppers--red, orange, purple, white among them--and more hot peppers than he can count. That will mean plenty of visual interest when subscribers open their CSA boxes later in the year.

Leigh is also starting to plant tomatoes. He hopes to be shipping two varieties of cherry tomatoes--Early Girl and Siberian--as early as the middle of June. This is also onion planting time, but Leigh does not plant his own onions. He purchases thousands of plants in bunches from a firm in Indiana. They'll be planted in the ground later.

Also at this time Leigh is planting broccoli. His customers like broccoli and unlike some other brassicas, such as cauliflower, broccoli will withstand a bit of frost. He's planning four successive crops, aiming for 1,000 plants in each spaced one week apart.

Leigh used to start his CSA deliveries in May, but at that time of the year the crops available for harvest are mostly greens. "People don't like six weeks of greens," he said, "so I'm giving them three weeks." Asked if he wasn't including spinach among his early crops, Leigh said, "I have a hard time finding spinach that doesn't bolt in this season." We have the same problem with bolting spinach. Spring in Washington gets too hot too fast.

Leigh Hauter is a former English teacher whose introduction to the farm was keeping bees at the urging of his father-in-law. Leigh sold the honey at farmers markets and has since managed to make farming a full-time occupation. We'll be checking in on him on a weekly basis so that kitchen gardeners in our area can see how a professional grows beautiful, bountiful produce.

The above photo is of the greenhouse seed starting operation at One Straw Farm in Baltimore County, taken last July.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Kids Make Black Bean Tamales

Kids love working with their hands, which makes tamales--mixing the dough, wrapping it in corn husks--the perfect assignment for our "food appreciation" classes.

This week on our virtual world culinary tour we are in Puebla, a city south of Mexico City known for its colorful ceramics and its clever chefs. But really, tamales are almost ubiquitous in Mexico, an emblematic part of a corn culture that stretches back thousands of years and is central to the country's cuisine.

An ancient technique for treating corn is to soak the dried kernels in a solution of lye or lime to remove the tough hull or pericarp. Although the original cooks surely did not know it at the time, this process--called nixtimalization--has the added benefit of making the essential niacin in the corn available for human digestion. The soft part of the corn can then be ground into a meal--or masa--that is the staple for so many uses, such as making tortillas and tamales.

Masa is readily available in Latin groceries or even in convenience stores catering to immigrants from south of the border. We look for a masa specifically designed for tamales. It is a rougher grind with a pleasing texture. You will also need corn husks, which are sold dried, usually in a stack of several dozen. Soak these 24 hours in advance in plenty of water to soften them. Remove and stray corn silk.

Tamales can be stuffed with almost anything: roast chicken or pork, beans or other cooked vegetables, even chocolate or other sweets to make dessert tamales. We stuffed ours with black beans cooked with onion, garlic and red and green bell pepper. But you could use any other savory bean.

Making tamale dough is usually a two step process, first beating a fat such as lard or vegetable shortening into a fluffy mass, then mixing the corn meal with other ingredients before combining with the fat. Some people like to do the mixing parts with an electric blender to work air into the dough. But it can also be done by hand.

The easiest way to procede may be to just follow the directions on your package of masa. We made ours as follows.

In a large bowl, beat 2/3 cup chilled lard or vegetable shortening until light and almost fluffy.

In a separate bowl, mix 2 cups masa with 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add 2 cups warm broth (such as chicken stock or vegetable stock) or water and stir well. Empty the dough into the fat and combine. Use a wooden spoon to beat the dough until it is soft and fluffy. Add more liquid if it is too stiff.

Lay a softened corn husk on a flat work surface and spoon a small fistful of dough into the center (it helps to use wider rather than narrower husks). Use a knife or a stiff spatula to spread the dough out, leaving several inches of husk uncovered at the top and bottom and an inch or so on the sides. Into the middle of the dough spoon some prepared beans. Now fold the tamale over, rolling the dough into a sausage shape. Wrap the husk closed, like a big cigar, and fold over the narrow bottom part to seal the tamale on one end. The fold should be two or three inches long. Wrap the end with a length of string and tie snuggly with a firm knot to hold the tamale together.

The finished tamales are cooked in a steamer. Lightweight aluminum tamale steamers are sold fairly inexpensively in Latin groceries. We used a pasta pot with a strainer insert. Or you could improvise a steamer using a wire rack at the bottom of a large pot. Stand the tamales in the steamer with the open ends pointing up. Pour about 1 inch water into the bottom and bring to a boil. Cover the pot snugly and steam at reduced heat for about one hour, or until the tamales are cooked through and firm.

This recipe makes a dozen or more tamales, depending on how big your corn husks are. To eat them, cut the string and unwrap the corn husk. Serve the tamales with your favorite sauce or salsa. We dressed ours with crema, a kind of liquid sour cream, and a dusting of fresh white cheese, or queso fresco. The kids begged for seconds.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Overwintered Carrot Salad

When you've got carrots, make carrot salad.

We pulled about five pounds of carrots from the garden the other day, just getting ready for spring planting. Some of those carrots were roasted with parsnips. I turned some more into one of my favorite salads with dried fruits, nuts and a curry dressing.

This salad is so adaptable. I usually throw in some raisins and walnuts, but what I found in the pantry were dried cranberries and sunflower seeds. You could use almost anything.

For the dressing I like to mix mayonnaise with a mild vinegar such as rice vinegar. I was out of that, too. So I substituted champagne vinegar. Instead of sweetening it with sugar, I used mirin, the traditional Japanese sweet condiment.

Grate five medium-sized carrots to make about 3 cups (I use the large holes on my box grater). Add about 1/2 cup raisins or dried cranberries and 1/3 cup chopped walnuts or sunflower seeds.

In a separate bowl, mix 1/2 cup mayonnaise with 1/4 cup rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon mirin (or substitute your favorite sweetener to taste), 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, 2 teaspoons curry powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Whisk until smooth and adjust seasonings.

Stir just enough dressing into the carrot mix to coat. Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled. This salad will brighten up a casual dinner or a lunch next to a sandwich. I confess: I can't help snacking on it till it's gone.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Fiery Pumpkin Seed Dip

Now it can be revealed: One of the most popular things we make is deceptively simple and doesn't even look edible. It's this humble dip made with toasted pumpkin seeds and cooked tomatoes, flavored to a fiery pitch with a roasted habanero pepper. We always make it in a Mexican molcajete, the traditional mortar made out of basalt stone.

Start with the habanero pepper. We have an electric range with large, flat elements. These are perfect for roasting peppers, but you can also use a traditional comal or a heavy iron skillet. Over moderately high heat, lay the pepper on its side and turn occasionally as it cooks, until it is lightly charred all around. Remove the pepper and when it is cool enough to handle remove the stem, slic it open and remove all the seeds. (I like to wear rubber gloves for this part.)

Next, grind the pepper in the molcajete with 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt.

Use your heaviest skillet to toast 1 1/4 cups hulled pumpkin seeds. We buy ours in bulk from Whole Foods. Over moderate heat, toss the seeds frequently. They will begin to pop and turn from green to tan. Be careful not to burn them. Place the toasted seeds in the molcajete and grind away until you have a rough powder. This may take some elbow grease, but if you're like me, you can use the exercise.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan, cook three ripe plum tomatoes in plenty of water. They should be completely cooked through and soft, almost like tomatoes from a can. Set the tomatoes aside to cool and when they are cool enough to handle remove the stem ends and the skin. Place the tomatoes with the ground pumpkin seeds in the molcajete and grind together until you have a smooth mix.

To the pumpkin seed and tomato mix add 2 tablespoon roughly chopped cilantro (or more) and 2 tablespoons chopped chives. Use a fork or a spoon to mix in the herbs.

Present the finished dip in your molcajete garnished with more cilantro. We like to serve it with freshly sliced jicama. The crispy coolness of the jicama acts as a nice foil for the spicy dip. But you can also scoop it up with your favorite corn chips. Have plenty of cold beer on hand to douse the flames.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Another Chilaquiles Smackdown

Can you guess what's missing from this photo of the dessert portion of the chilaquiles fiesta we held here yesterday?

Yes, I know it's hard to take your eyes off the exquisite fruit platter assembled by our friend Keith, laden as it is with passion fruit and mangos and prickly pear. And friend Susan's version of Mexican wedding cookies have been almost completely consumed. No, it must be Janice's churros, of which only a few scant crumbs remain. They were definitely a huge hit, made with fresh pate choux, deep fried and rolled in cinnamon sugar.

And that was after the chilaquiles--red and green versions--all muddled with tangy crema and queso fresco. And Yayo's perfectly cooked Spanish torta. And the chorizo sausage. And the poached eggs.

Most of the party is a blur for me. That's what I get for agreeing to make chilaquiles a la minute for 40 people. You are familiar with chilaquiles, yes? I like to think of them as the Mexican equivalent of French bread. The French call their stale baguettes "pan perdu," or "lost bread. They make economical use of it by soaking the bread in egg and frying it. In Mexico, tortillas are eaten with every meal. It's common for families to buy a tall stack of them in the morning. Should any go stale, you can fry them in some oil to make chips, then toss them in a sauce of tomatoes, onions and chipotle chilies.

Having thrown this party the last several years, we continue to refine our technique. Last year I struggled with the poached eggs. Now I think I have cracked that nut: a couple of hours before guests arrive, poach three dozen eggs as usual in a large skillet of simmering water with white vinegar (use the freshest eggs possible). Instead of dropping the cooked eggs into a cold water bath, however, cook them just to the point of doneness and spread them on lightly greased sheet pans. The eggs will continue to cook a bit. As guests begin to arrive, place the eggs in a warm (not hot) oven until you are ready to serve. Use a metal spatula to place them on a warm ceramic serving platter and garnish lightly with chopped cilantro. Guests can easily help themselves to the poached eggs at the buffet using a serving fork.

For the chilaquiles, we cut stacks of fresh corn tortillas into squares and fry them in the deep fryer. Have your sauces simmering on the stove, then simply toss the chips with sauce in a heavy skillet, stirring in some thinly sliced white onion. When the chips begin to soften, spread them on a platter and garnish liberally with crema, queso fresco and chopped cilantro.

Here's the recipe we use for our red sauce:

Red Sauce for Chilaquiles
Serves 6

2 tablespoons lard or canola oil
1/2 white onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, with juice
2 chipotle chiles in adobo, seeds removed and chopped fine
1 cup chicken stock or broth
2 teaspoons oregano, preferably Mexican)
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1 bay leaf
salt to taste

In a saucepan over medium-low heat, heat 1 tablespoon lard or canola oil. Sweat the onion and garlic until soft, about 10 minutes. Add remaining ingredients except salt and bring almost to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer gently one hour. Remove from heat.

Remove bay leaf. Pour sauce in into a blender and blend until smooth. Over moderately-high heat, heat 1 tablespoon lard or canola oil in a heavy skillet. Pour in sauce. Cook vigorously and reduce until sauce until it is the consistency of thick soup. If too thick, add chicken broth. Season with salt as needed. Remove from heat and reserve.

And here's a green chilaquiles sauce you might like to try:

3 tablespoons lard or canola oil
1 medium white onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 jalapeno pepper (about the size of your thumb), seeds removed and chopped fine
2 pounds fresh tomatillos (paper husks removed), cleaned and roughly chopped
½ cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves
2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican
1 cup chicken broth
salt to taste

Over medium-low heat, sweat the onion, garlic and jalapeno in 2 tablespoons lard or canola oil until onions are soft, about 10 minutes. Add remaining ingredients except salt and bring almost to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer gently 1 hour. Remove from heat.

Pour the sauce into a blender and blend until the ingredients retain just a bit of texture. Meanwhile, over moderately high heat, heat 1 tablespoon lard or canola oil in a heavy skillet. Pour in sauce. Cook vigorously and reduce until the sauce is the consistency of thick soup. If too thick, add chicken broth. Season with salt as needed. Remove from heat and reserve.

These sauces can be made days ahead and reheated.

Note: crema, a tangy sort of liquid sour cream, and queso fresco, literally a fresh white cheese that crumbles easily, are instant markers of Mexican and Central American cuisine and can readily be found at Latin markets. Tomatillos are not a form of green tomato but a relative of the gooseberry. They also can be found in Latin neighorhoods.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

February Harvest Dinner

Here's some of the venison we recently received in trade with one of the neighbors for pickles and other preserves we put up in the summer.

Apparently the neighbors have family with a farm in southern Virginia and have been plying us with venison in exchange for our home-grown produce. What they are most interested in are tomatoes. So this year we will be installing a couple of tomato plants in the garden that they can harvest from any time they like. In the bargain, we get a steady supply of the venison they harvest on the farm.

Call it town meets country.

I didn't do anything special with these venison tenderloin. After defrosting them a few days ago, I just wanted to make sure they got eaten. Season with extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, grill on the Jennaire. I did have some leftover sauce from one meat dish or another to put a smile on that venison when it came to the table. The carrots and parsnips you see in the background are some of those recently harvested from the garden, roasted with thyme. Mashed potatoes round out the picture.

And I still have three portions of that tenderloin left over.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

February Harvest

Carrots have stored very nicely in the ground. And since we've been experiencing a bit of a thaw the last week I went out and started preparing beds for planting. While I was digging around, I pulled up this lovely bunch, about five pounds worth.

We've been pulling occasional parsnips through the winter. These were planted last spring and were starting to show new growth on top. Time to pull them before they get too tough to eat.

Lots of beets as well. Some will go into our favorite beet salad with red onion and red wine vinegar. The rest we'll try to store. But not to worry. No chance they'll go bad. We love beets too much.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Kids Make Catfish Veracruz

Fish in the style of Veracruz Mexico is a classic treatment that at first blush looks like a strange cocktail of ingredients. Tomatoes with cinnamon and cloves? Olives and capers? Pickled jalapeno juice?

There is definitely a Spanish influence here and an almost Renaissance approach to flavors. Yet somehow it all works, producing in the end a dish that many of the kids in our "food appreciation" classes went absolutely wild over.

Others just don't like fish. Well, there's no accounting for taste.

We happen to be in Veracruz on our virtual world food tour after three weeks hopping around the Caribbean. Veracruz is the steamy Mexican port on the Carribean side of the country, perhaps best known for its sugar cane refineries. But Veracruz also has a style of food all its own and we definitely wanted to sample what may be its signature dish.

Typically, fish Veracruz would be made with red snapper but snapper has been overfished and is rated "avoid" by seafood sustainability groups such as "Seafood Watch" at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Consequently we chose a farmed U.S. catfish, which holds up very well to being cooked in a tomato sauce, almost like a seafood stew.

The list of ingredients for this preparation is lengthy. But the actual assembly is rather quick and easy. The reward is all in the unique flavor--a bit sweet and sour, a little spicy--definitely exotic and perhaps unlike anything you've tried before.

For the fish:

1 1/2 pounds thick farmed catfish fillet, cut into 2-inch chunks

For the sauce:

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 onion, peeled, halved lengthwise and sliced thin

1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes with juices

12 pitted green olives, preferably Manzanillo, roughly chopped

1 tablespoon Spanish capers

1 large pickled jalapeno pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into thin strips

1 tablespoon pickled jalapeno juice

3 /4 teaspoon dried oregano

3/4 teaspoon dried thyme

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 spice sachet consisting of 3 bay leaves, 1 cinnamon stick, 2 cloves and six crushed black peppercorns tied in cheesecloth

1 cup fish stock

Salt to taste

In a heavy pot, heat the olive oil over moderately low heat. Sweat the onions and garlic until soft, about 8 minutes. Add the tomatoes, olives, capers, jalapenos, pickling juice, oregano, thyme, parsley, spice sachet and fish stock. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for about 30 minutes. Season with salt as needed. Add catfish and cook another 10 minutes, or until the fish is just cooked through.

Ladle the stew over brown rice and garnish with additional parsley. Serve immediately with warm corn tortillas.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Onion Experiment

There's just so much to learn about food gardening that it can't possibly be thought of as anything but a lifelong process. This year it's onions we are trying to focus on. We'd like to get those right so we are planting them from seed.

The last couple of years we planted onion sets that we bought from our farmer friend Mike. Onion sets are simply onions from last year that are pulled from the ground when they were still small, then stored until spring for re-planting. Ours never seemed to get large enough after we planted them in the garden. I asked Drew Norman about it when I was visiting him at One Straw Farm over the summer. He said onions do much better when planted from seed.

Since then I've learned that there are three different types of onions to select from depending on which area of the country you live in. There are "long day" onions, for instance, that are bred to perform well in the more northerly latitudes, where the sun shines much longer during the summer. There are "short day" onions better suited for the southern states where days are shorter during the summer. Finally there are "intermediate" onions that do better somewhere in the middle.

Well, guess what? The line separating "long day" from "short day" onions runs right through the District of Columbia where we live. So which onion to choose? I decided to try some of each. I opened our copy of Johnny's Seed catalogue to start the search.

Some seed catalogues list their onions as "long day," "short day" or "intermediate." Johnny's, by contrast, indicates in the description of each onion the latitudinal range in which it will do best. The District of Columbia sits at 38 degrees latitude. The onion "Candy" caught my eye. It is supposed to do well in the 33-40 degree latitude range, which makes it an "intermediate" onion. I ordered some of those. The onion "Copra" is supposed to produce large, sturdy bulbs that store for a long time. It does best in 38-55 degrees latitude, making it a "long day" onion, just on the edge of our range. I also picked a red onion, "Ruby Ring," that is adapted to 35-50 degrees latitude, according to Johnny's. This is supposed to be an "excellent red storage type," and since we love an occasional red onion, I had to have it.

I also selected two different bunching onions or scallions, one to grow through the season and another hardy variety to over-winter. I'm sure we'll have more than enough of those. And since ordering my seeds I've learned something else about growing onions: if you don't want to bother with sets or planting seeds in trays, you can buy bunches of young plants.

Already I can see some advantages to buying onions as plants. Onion seeds are normally planted in trays very early in the year, January or February. But unless you have a greenhouse or a grow light system, you may have trouble giving the seedlings enough light after they've germinated. The sun is still very low in the sky. It hits our window at a sharp angle before disappearing around the corner.

I planted our seeds a week ago. They are just starting to germinate. I only hope we get enough sun through the window. Or perhaps it will be warm enough to set them outside during the day. That's what makes this an experiment. Fortunately, if all else fails, I'll still have time to buy bunches of young plants and get them in the ground.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Egg and onion sandwich with homemade "crock" pickle.

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Shopping: none

My wife declares this "the best" egg sandwich ever. It's made with a fresh pastured egg from Creekside Farm & Orchard in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. Daughter and I walked to the Dupont Circle farmers market on Sunday and picked up a couple of dozen. (We used to get our eggs from farmer friend Brett's weekly winter CSA box. But we were unable to find a partner to share the CSA subscription this year. I feel terribly disloyal, but we must have our pastured eggs.)

The egg and its rich orange yolk were mixed with a bit of salt and pepper and quick-fried. We toasted slices of the multi-grain bread that we get delivered from our dairy, South Mountain Creamery. (It's a deliciously chewy bread that makes quite a trip, first baked in Ellicott City, Maryland, then trucked across the state to the dairy almost in West Virginia, then back to us in the District of Columbia. It arrives frozen but you'd never know once it is thawed.)

A little mayonnaise on the bread, some thinly sliced onion on the egg. The pickle is a sweet and sour variety that we put up last summer, just the thing to spice up this simple lunch.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What's in Your Soil?

There's no real substitute for a professional soil test if you are thinking of planting a vegetable garden. But there is a terrific website that allows you to cruise around your neighborhood and get a general idea of what's in the soil and whether it will support the kind of food gardening you have in mind.

Last night I attended a two-hour class on urban soils sponsored by Casey Trees, a non-profit organization here in the District of Columbia that works to grow the city's tree canopy. The class was taught by a soil scientist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and among the things we learned were these:

* There are thousands of different soil types around the United States, some better for gardening and planting trees than other.

* Much of the country's topsoil is disappearing because of agricultural practices that favor applications of artificial fertilizers rather than organic matter.

* Urban soils suffer from trash and compaction. Plants need oxygen in the soil to grow and a healthy soil typically is composed of 25 percent oxygen. Vibrations from heavy road traffic work to compact nearby soil.

* The "fall line" separating the upland Piedmont and Appalachian regions from the Atlantic coastal plains runs right through the middle of the District of Columbia. (It runs from New York City through Philadelphia, Washington and south all the way to Florida). Piedmont soils are distinctly different from coastal plains soils.

The USDA has spent years collecting data on soils around the country. Its latest internet tool, the "Web Soil Survey," allows you to enter an address and pull up all kinds of information on the soil in your area, including organic content, pH, and whether it rates as suitable for growing food.

When you get to the site, click on the green button to start the survey. Type in your address and you'll see a satellite photo of your neighborhood. You'll have tons of options and things to look at. You might want to set a day aside to get used to cruising around this wealth of valuable data.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

We're in Martha Stewart Living

How do you turn a story about a vegetable farm into a five-page spread on food and entertaining?

That was the challenge I and the editors at Martha Stewart Living faced for the March gardening issue. Regular readers may recall me writing briefly about Drew and Joan Norman's One Straw Farm in Baltimore County and their hugely successful CSA (community supported agriculture) plan. This was a bit of a stretch for Martha, glamorizing the business of growing tomatoes and onions and kale. If you look closely at the credits you'll see that the photographs were taken by Helen Norman who is Drew Norman's sister and a regular contributor to Martha Stewart Living. They live on nearly adjoining properties in White Hall near the Pennsylvania line.

The Normans' is a remarkable story of hard work and determination in the building of a modern family farm. They met at University of Maryland, where Drew was studying agriculture, and with help from parents bought some abandoned acreage in the rolling countryside north of Baltimore not far from where Drew Norman grew up. For years they grew vegetables organically for the national wholesale market but faced stiff competition from California. Things looked grim when they learned that a load of eggplant they'd sent to Texas arrived frozen (they didn't know they were supposed to wrap the eggplant individually against the cold). But then Whole Foods offered to buy whatever they could grow for the closer-in Mid-Atlantic market. Things really started to move the Normans' way when they discovered CSA.

Their CSA is now huge--they cultivate 175 acres for about 1,400 subscribers in the Baltimore area. They deliver to numerous drop sites but clients are also allowed to select their own produce from any of the five farmers markets where Joan Norman displays their goods. When I was at the farm in July, production was in full swing. I followed Joan on her rounds and managed a long conversation with Drew while he was fixing a tractor. Both of them are definitely moving targets: Drew is mostly in the fields growing and harvesting while Joan tends to the business end. They employ and house 17 seasonal workers from Mexico to help with the field work. Imagine planting 50,000 tomato seedlings.

On Wednesdays Joan is one of several vendors at Boordy Vineyards, a venerable Maryland winery just a few miles from the farm. There's a sinful chocolate tasting along with a local cheese display, buffalo burgers, wine sampling and live music. In the afteroon, hundreds of locals with kids and coolers show up for a picnic and a show outside the old stone tasting room. It's quite a sight, with a very strong feeling of family and community.

That's the Normans' reward for 25 years of hard work in the soil. They both take seriously their role in reviving local agriculture. "Noday gets on a sinking ship," said Joan Norman. "But build an ark and they'll climb aboard two-by-two."

The Normans have built quite an ark.

A Great Big Food Garden Tax Break & Stimulus Package

Warning: The following may contain dangerously subversive thoughts. Young children should probably leave the room....

Although I believe in food gardening, I am also convinced that we will only get so far trying to persuade Americans that there is a healthier way to eat, and that growing your own is a big part of the answer. But I also know there's something else Americans care very much about: money. That's why I am proposing right here and right now a big fat tax break on kitchen gardens that will not only spur our fellow citizens to start digging up their lawns like crazy, but will fit right in with President Obama's economic stimulus efforts by getting everyone busy buying seeds and garden tools.

This proposal has the added benefit of creating a perfect opportunity for the kind of political bi-partisanship that Obama has been yearning for. I am certain that Republicans, who have never seen a tax break they didn't like, will jump at the chance to support one that will provide fresh fruits and vegetables to every man, woman and child in these United States. This is more than a bread and butter issue. This is more than a Mom and apple pie issue. This is a beets and potatoes issue that people of all political stripes can easily sink their teeth into.

Why shouldn't kitchen gardens get a tax break? We give tax breaks for home offices, which encourages workers to stay off the roads. We give tax breaks for mortgage interest, which encourages people to buy homes. We even give tax credits for children, which quite needlessly encourages couples who otherwise would not get along to have more sex. Written as they are into our federal law, these measures are a form of universally accepted social engineering, designed to create healthier, more productive, more satisfying living conditions for our entire society. So I ask you, what could be healthier, more productive, more satisfying than fruits and vegetables we can grow and harvest right outside our door? In fact, we can easily do without a home office, or our own house, or even more children. But we cannot do without food. Living without food would be hard if not nearly impossible. We should be encouraging people to grow more of it.

There is a deeper, more profound reason to use the federal tax code to promote kitchen gardens. As we all know, Congress has been unable to undo the corporate-government love knot that is responsible for so much of the bad food in this country. By that I mean the way our government uses our tax dollars to subsidize the production of a huge glut of corn and soybeans, which then finds its way via a chemical laboratory in New Jersey into nearly everything you see on supermarket shelves. Obesity, diabetes, hypertension, irritability--there's a whole litany of unhealthy repercussions from government-supported agribusiness that we needn't bother to repeat here. Try as it might, Congress hasn't been able to wrap its arms around this problem. So I say let's just put that one to the side. Let's not pull out our hair over it any more. Let's move on and consider tax breaks for healthy alternative foods, the kind you grow in kitchen gardens.

The reason I think our elected representatives in Washington will go for this idea is, first of all, it will get radical food groups off their backs about the cozy relationship they have with agribusiness. Once these tax breaks are passed, Congress can continue to accept those fat contributions from Monsanto and ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland and nobody will care. That won't be where the action is any more. Everybody in the country will be focused on how to take advantage of the new tax breaks. Secondly, these new tax measures will win wide support because they embody two cherished American values: fairness and competition. Tax breaks for kitchen gardens will help level the playing field where growing food is concerned because up to now all the federal subsidies have been going to corn and soybeans. Nobody subsidizes carrots and broccoli. In fact, nobody even pays to advertise carrots and broccoli the way they do, say, Doritos and Pepsi, two products that just happen to contain a lot of corn. Giving tax breaks to people who grow their own collards and tomatoes will inject a fresh new competitive spirit into the business of producing food. With every family in America growing their own food, we can surely expect agribusiness to respond with a more efficacious high-fructose corn syrup, for instance, even a better tasting fry oil.

This is how it would work: If you are just starting your garden, you will be eligible for a federal tax credit on the land you put into production, up to one acre. I think $1 per square foot is a fair rate, which means that virtually every home owner could probably knock $1,000 right off the top of their tax bill. If you don't pay any federal income taxes, it would mean a $1,000 check from Uncle Sam. Even better, you wouldn't even have to own your own home. You could claim the credit if you rent, even if you are starting a garden on the roof of your apartment building or just planting basil in some window boxes. Starting your new garden will probably also require some tools and a good deal of labor. My plan provides a further tax credit of $500 for the purchase or rental of appropriate garden tools and any help you might have to pay for. The only catch is, you cannot claim tools that use fossil fuels. This conforms with our previously announced scheme to reduce greenhouse gases wherever possible in the gardening realm. Instead, this is what you do: When you go to Home Depot to buy your garden tools, grab a couple of those immigrant guys who are hanging around looking for work and take them home to help dig the garden. You can claim whatever you pay them on your tax credit form, anything within the $500 limit. Just remember to ask for a receipt.

As you might suspect already, this proposal would be a huge stimulus to employment, and not just for the guys hanging around Home Depot. Millions of gardeners will need their soil tested, which will instantly create jobs at state universities and other testing facilities nationwide. There will be a huge demand for shovels and trowels and watering cans: more jobs by the thousands for a nation hungry for employment in the manufacturing sector. Ditto for those factories that create compost and other soil amendments and are now sitting idle. They will be humming with new work. (Note: no deductions for artificial fertilizers or chemical pesticides. This is a sustainable, strictly organic tax program.) And what about seeds? You will certainly need seeds. My plan envisions a $50 credit for seeds, meaning lots of work for seed collectors.

What if you have never gardened before? Won't you need some instruction on how to prepare your garden, what to plant, when to plant it? For that I have a very special feature in mind, something that is sure to take thousands of unemployed horticulturists out of bread lines and put them to work. I call it the "Kitchen Garden Corps," whereby the federal government, as a further stimulus measure, would fund new positions in every single county extension service in the country, people trained and ready to show erstwhile kitchen gardeners how to grow more food and how to cook it for dinner. (And if we need to train the experts first, so much the better. More jobs for trainers.) Additional positions could be created to teach gardening on-line, a boost for the telecommunications and computer industries.

That's all well and good, you are saying to yourself, but what's to prevent cheating? What if somebody digs up their lawn but doesn't plant anything? Do we let garden scofflaws just kick back and collect their checks? I struggled with that one, too. Perhaps we should require some sort of site visit and certification by an extension agent. Or maybe we could require that people claiming the credit provide photos of their garden at appropriate intervals in the growing season. But I think an even better remedy--one that market theorists will like--would be to provide further incentives to grow as much food in the garden as possible, to garden as intensively as soil and local weather conditions permit. Remember what Earl Butz told farmers back in the 70s: "Plant fence row to fence row!" Well, we would be telling home owners to plant from the back of the patio all the way to the wooden fence that separates them from their neighbor on the next street over. The incentive would come in the form of a subsidy check for the produce you grow, very much like the payments the federal government makes to agribusinesses that produce corn that can only be eaten after it's been subjected to a complicated chemical process. You would be paid by the pound for all the organic eggplants and zucchini and butternut squash you grow. But you would need to weigh everything and keep very precise records. The IRS will print a form for this purpose, much like the one you fill out when you are claiming a profit or loss from the sale of your stocks. (The cost of the scale would be tax deductible, of course.)

In subsequent years, the tax credits that helped you start your garden would turn into tax deductions. Hopefully these incentives would be enough to keep you gardening year after year, producing food for your family and possibly even for the fruit and vegetable co-op you form with your neighbors. By then, there will be an enthusiastic response to the idea of further tax breaks for chickens, goats, rabbits and other small, food-producing animals. The entire nation will be healthier and happier, hooked on fresh, local food. That could mean hard times for traditional supermarkets and fast-food restaurants. But surely they will evolve in this competitive new food environment, perhaps even learning to serve healthy foods themselves. Thanks to these new federal tax measures we will be eating most of our food fresh out of the garden, which could lead to much less disease (less demand, hence lower costs, for health care) and much greater longevity (better days for retirement homes and registered nurses).

Which leads me to wonder: Will I still be gardening when I'm 140 years old?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Kids Make Smothered Okra

There are many vegetables that kids don't care for but grow to love as adults. Okra may be that rare vegetable that works just the other way around: kids seem to love it, and only learn to hate it when they get older.

Okra originated in Africa and famously gave the world the stew "gumbo," taking its name from the native word for okra. Okra followed the slave trade into the New World, finding a home all over the South and in the Caribbean islands. Okra loves a hot and humid climate and grows very well right here in the District of Columbia.

Some people prefer their okra fried, to eliminate the gooey-ness that sometimes accompanies this relative of the mallow plant. While our "food appreciation" classes are still island hopping on our virtual world food tour, we tried this classic preparation variously called "smothered okra" or "creole okra," in which okra is simmered very simply with other vegetables. We like to serve it with plain rice.

There are no herbs or spices in this preparation other than salt and pepper. You might be surprised how full of flavor it is. Pairing okra with onions, tomatoes and corn seems to be a perfect combination.

2 tablespoons bacon grease (or substitute extra-virgin olive oil)

1/2 yellow onion, cut into medium dice

1/2 green bell pepper, cut into medium dice

26 okra pods (each about 3 inches long), stem removed and cut on an angle into 1/2-inch pieces

1 14-oz can diced tomatoes, with juice (or two ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced)

1 cup corn kernels

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a heavy skillet over moderately low heat, heat the bacon grease or olive oil and add the onion and green pepper. Cover and sweat the vegetables until they are tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in the okra, tomatoes and corn, cover and cook until the okra is fully cooked and tender, about 20 minutes. (The okra should turn an olive-green color). Season with salt and pepper and serve hot with brown rice.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

White House Food Garden: Time to Go Back to School

It seems the whole world is badgering the Obamas to tear up part of the White House lawn and plant a food garden.

Kitchen Gardeners International started a petition called "Eat the View" that calls on the first family to plant a "victory garden" within their first 100 days in office. Michael Pollan, writing in the New York Times Magazine last year, proposed turning five acres of White House property into a farm, and a website in California got nearly 60,000 readers to vote on who should be the farmer. Now our friend Susan Harris, blogging at Garden Rant, has rolled out a whole cast of characters to design, advise on and maintain a White House kitchen garden.

Apparently the intent of all this activity aimed at the Obamas and their food habits is to inspire the rest of the country to eat better, support healthy agriculture and perhaps even plant a garden of their own. Being an avid kitchen gardener and local food advocate myself, I have a hard time arguing against people growing their own food. However, I do have a couple of issues with the proposal as currently constructed, and would like to offer an alternative suggestion.

First, unless President Obama is willing to declare war on the unholy corporate-government alliance that is responsible for this country's miserable diet, he looks a bit disingenuous feeding his family garden-fresh produce on the public dime. Before he can lay claim to the mantle of Gardener in Chief, the new president needs to demonstrate that he is willing to implement government policies that undo the choke hold that giant agribusiness has on this county's food production. So far we are getting some inklings of reform. But Obama's choice of Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, drew a resounding Bronx cheer from the nation's food advocacy establishment. The new president still needs to establish his creds as champion of an alternate food system. (Obama's support of ethanol is hardly encouraging, but also not surprising, since he hails from Illinois, a major corn growing state. In fact, food and agriculture are not even listed on the Obama White House agenda.)

Second, do the Obamas really want to be in a position of saying, "Hey! Look at us! We're eating a whole lot better than you are!" It's one thing to lead by example. It's quite another to put yourself at odds with the way most of the country feeds itself. The last time the government encouraged people to plant gardens was during World War II when food was being rationed. It made sense for everyone to consider growing their own produce. But the government has no such policy in place. In fact, government policy has been to support agribusiness as we know it, which means tax dollars subsidizing a glut of corn and soybean products, the essence of our poor diet. Last time I looked, the president still represented the whole country, not just produce gourmands and local food fanatics. How does it look for him to be thumbing his nose at the good ol' regular food most people buy in the supermarket?

Third, there is something unseemly about the First Family luxuriating in a garden-fresh diet at a time when the country is in an economic tailspin and many families are just trying to hang on to their homes. Paradoxically, this would be a perfect time for millions of Americans to consider ditching their Turf Builder and planting a food garden instead. Growing your own food for the cost of some seeds saves a fortune in grocery bills. But sadly we are no longer a gardening culture. Those skills were lost with the passing of prior generations. Asking people to start busting sod on their own when the Obamas have a paid staff to do it for them is asking a bit much. If we want to rekindle the gardening spirit, we should do it with an all-out national undertaking and not lay it on the First Family.

Fourth, a sprawling food garden behind the White House would mark the Obamas as glaringly apart from their neighbors in the District of Columbia, where few residents have five acres--or even a fraction of that amount--at their disposal. In D.C., a meal for too many inner-city children consists of a bottle of artificially-flavored high-fructose corn syrup and a bag of potato chips from the corner convenience store. The poverty rate for school children ages 5 - 17 in the District of Columbia is 51.3 percent compared with 34.5 percent nationally, the highest in the nation. This translates into 56,000 children at risk of hunger in Washington, D.C., or 1 in 2 children. More than 12 percent of the city's households struggle with hunger. Some 109,000 residents are eligible to participate in the Food Stamp Program each month, however only two-thirds actually receive food stamps, and of those who do, 74 percent report that their food stamps do not last the entire month.

For all these reasons, past First Families have not spent much time advertising their personal eating habits. Little did we know that White House chefs were busy sourcing local, healthy foods, long before food celebrities such Ruth Reichl and Alice Waters and Danny Meyers started spouting their opinions about how the kitchen at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue should operate. The Clintons grew some of their personal food on the White House roof. Laura Bush was adamant that her family dine on organic products.

The Obamas, too, might appreciate a little privacy around their choice of victuals. But I have a suggestion that would allow them to get behind local food in a very public way without inviting a billion prying eyes into the backyard or private dining room: sponsor a school garden.

I'm surprised Alice Waters has not suggested this before. She's been talking for years about building one of her Edible Schoolyards in the nation's capital. The Obamas adopting a school garden would fit perfectly with what Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack has said are some of his department's highest priorities: improving child nutrition and giving schools greater access to local food. School gardens make perfect sense. If we are going to be a nation of healthy, sustainable eaters, we should teach it to our kids. This would be a great way for the Obamas to connect with the local community, and Lord knows our local schools could use the support. It would be an invaluable opportunity for teachers, school administrators and parents to close ranks around an issue of paramount importance, as well as a rare chance for Barack and Michelle Obama to learn on a personal level the kinds of challenges that public schools--and especially inner-city schools--face in their efforts to embrace healthy food.

The Obamas would learn, for instance, just how hard it is to turn local produce into meals where there are no cooking facilities. (School cafeterias are just glorified food lines any more. Perhaps after helping with the harvest, the president and first lady could take fruits and vegetables back to the White House and have their chefs do the cooking). Some schools don't even have soil: Everything has to be planted in containers. Still, even city kids love to work in the garden and eat the fruits of their labors. They need every opportunity they can get.

Talk about your shovel-ready projects. We've got plenty of schools. Just throw a dart at the map. We've also got numerous organizations that know just what needs to be done to make a model school food garden happen. There's D.C. Schoolyard Greening, a coalition of government and private groups the supports school gardens and helps incorporate gardening activities into the curriculum. There's City Blossoms, a group that specializes in building teaching gardens for children. There's the Washington Youth Garden, whose program centers on gardening with inner-city families and reaching out to city schools with nutrition and cooking lessons. There's the 7th Street Garden, an urban agriculture enterprise versed in all phases of fruit and vegetable production and committed to food security for the needy. There's Casey Trees, a non-profit intent on planting more fruit trees in the city in places where they will be well cared for. And now the Obamas have brought their personal chef from Chicago, Sam Kass, who is all about healthy local food and families.

Putting a school garden project like this together with White House backing would hardly take any time at all, maybe a few phone calls. Most schools would jump at the chance. So I say this to the Obamas: you can have your garden and eat it too. Do it for the kids. Do it for the schools. Every school board in the country will sit up and take notice.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Local Produce Delivered

The dairy that delivers our milk--South Mountain Creamery--may have to change its signage, because it just announced that it will soon begin delivering organic fruits and vegetables from local farms in our area.

This could save us from the crowds at the weekend farmers market and take us one step closer to eliminating some of the inefficiencies in the way local food makes its way to consumers. What we really need are groceries dedicated to local foods and open for business seven days a week, like regular supermarkets.

(Happily, the local-sustainable grocery Ellwood Thompson's out of Richmond, Va., is slated to open its first District of Columbia store right here in our neighborhood this fall. How nice will that be not having to wait for the few hours the farmers market is open on the weekend? And I wonder how the prices will compare.)

Already, some CSA farmers have been offering clients the option of ordering from a list of produce, rather than just accepting the weekly box. South Mountain is even proposing more greenhouses in the area to produce food during the winter. Here's the announcement:

"Thank you to everyone who replied to my earlier e-mail regarding home delivery of fresh local vegetables and produce. We had a great response, both good and bad, with lots of input regarding what would be needed to make this type of service work. Over the past week, my wife and I have discussed this idea, read all of your e-mails, and have had several conversations with farmers in the area.

We have decided that we WILL be moving forward with a fresh vegetable and produce delivery. SOUTH MOUNTAIN VEGGIE will go live, we hope, by the first of March. Because of differences in handling, we will be delivering the vegetables and produce in a different truck, but we hope to be able to deliver as much as possible on the same day as the milk. We will not charge a second delivery fee.

More details as to how the service will work, and when the deliveries will start will be e-mailed around the beginning of March, when we launch the new website. We are hoping to create a local sustainable network, allowing farmers a place to sell their goods, and of! course you the opportunity to receive fresh and local veggies! and fruits.

We currently have 22 small organic farms lined up to support this idea, and will add more farms as we move forward. We are also beginning to talk to local greenhouse operations in the area, so that we can continue to offer you local veggies in the winter. This is a extremely exciting venture, and we are so glad to be able to offer this to you.

Again, thank you to all, and I will be in touch soon with more details…..


Tony Brusco"

We're looking forward to seeing the menu, Tony.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Why We Stopped Eating Crabs

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation recently published a report that for the first time links the decline of Blue Crabs in Maryland and Virginia waters to poor water quality.

The state of the blue crab has been declared a disaster, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has filed suit in federal court against the U.S. Environmental Protection agency after decades of empty promises from state and federal officials who claim to support cleaning up the Bay even while it collapses.

Among the report's findings:

* Pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorous create large "dead zones" in the bay that annually wipe out 75,000 tons of clams and worms at the bottom of the Bay where crabs would otherwise feed. That's enough food to support 60 million blue crabs, or about half the Bay's commercial crab harvest.

* Sediment from runoff and algal blooms from pollutants kill the underwater grasses that baby crabs need to hide from predators. More than half the Bay's eelgrass has died since the 1970s.

* Because the Bay supports fewer crabs, overfishing has become an even greater problem. Watermen have caught an average 62 percent of the total blue crab population in the Bay every year for the last decade, far more than the 46 percent that scientists say is sustainable.

"In 2007, watermen suffered the worst crab harvest since Bay-wide record keeping began in 1945," the report states. "2008 was even worse in Virginia, and only slightly better in Maryland. Maryland and Virginia have endured more than $640 million in losses over the last decade because of the crab's decline. The states are taking immediate steps to prevent a potential collapse of the fishery. On October 23, 2008, Maryland banned the commercial harvest of female crabs until spring, and Virginia imposed the same prohibitions on October 27."

Now there's something to think about next time you reach for that bag of Scott's Turf Builder (40 percent nitrogen) to beef up your lawn. Better idea: turn your lawn into a vegetable garden and feed it with compost.