Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Learning to love your veggies

I grew up remembering vegetables as foods to be tolerated, not savored. I would like to blame this memory of vegetables on the bland diets of the Midwest, but I can't really do that as a child of Indian immigrants whose mother was not only a fabulous cook but also a stay-at-home mom up until her children's early teen years. Somewhere in adulthood, my opinion of vegetables moved from toleration to respect, and then from excitement and finally to all-out love. These days, as I prepare meals, I think less about the "main course" and more about the sides. What vegetables will we eat? How many different colors can I sneak onto the dinner plate? How shall I prepare them? Can we do more than one dish of greens?

Translating this love for vegetables has become a goal of sorts through a six-week series of food preparations and tastings that my husband Jim and I are doing for the food pantry at the Franklin Community Center in Saratoga Springs. The series grew out of a collection of thoughts (seeds, if you will) centered on how social justice through food security: encouraging donations of healthy, local produce to food pantries and other social service organizations; helping recipients of such donated items understand the foods in terms of their affordability and nutritional value; and, finally, diversifying the pool of "typical" shoppers at farmers markets as a way of making the credo of "from farm to fork" more than just a buzzword for the affluent.

When my husband proposed that he and I prepare foods that we grow in our back yard and offer recipes and free tastings to food pantry regulars, the response was enthusiastic. But with the enthusiasm came some warnings. The preparations had to be very simple, involve no more than four or five ingredients, and should feature vegetables that, unlike, say bitter melon and kohlrabi, are easily recognizable.

Last week, we kicked off the series with the featured vegetable: kale. We steamed one batch in water, added some lemon juice to a second batch, and apple juice to a third batch. We handed out samples, which people politely tried and seemed to like. We timed the preparations and realized that we had scored very high on the scales of simplicity and affordability. The dishes we served cost less than $1 to make, and the preparation time -- including washing and chopping up the vegetables -- was about three minutes.

But would these dishes make people fall in love with kale? Sampling the leafy, fibrous greens myself, I had my doubts. The kale we made was like the infamous spinach that a lot of adults who were children of the 60s and the 70s might remember from their childhoods. A green thing that was good for you, but didn't particularly seem to taste distinctive, innovative, or, for lack of a better word, special.

So this week we switched strategies, and tried turnips. Equally boring in name and reputation. But when prepared four different ways, truly one of the most delicious root vegetables around.

We started with the green tops. We chopped them off the turnip bulbs, washed them and shook them dry. We then chopped them up, and dry-roasted them on a flat skillet with a dab of canola oil (which prices out to be about one-fourth of the price of olive oil and in many cases tastes just as good), and a few mustard, fenugreek, and cumin seeds.

"Wow, that's got a kick," exclaimed one taster. "I never even thought you could eat the greens. I just threw them away."

Step two was a simple sauté. We sliced up a turnip, sautéed it in the oil and added a small sprinkle of salt.

"Pretty good," one person intoned. "And really simple to make."

The third step was a stir-fry. Although I was tempted to really go to town and cook the turnips with onion, garlic, carrots, peas, and ginger and turmeric, I remembered simple and stuck to oil, a bit of cumin seed, and shredded cabbage. We hope that as we write the recipes out into a booklet, we'll be able to encourage others to see the stir-fry method as a way of cooking together vegetables of a wide variety that might be sitting in a home refrigerator or of putting leftovers to good use.

The fourth and final preparation was a baked turnip. Like a baked potato, I explained. I wrapped the bulb in aluminum foil and put it in the oven for about 30 minutes. The result. "That's a turnip?" one person asked. "It's so soft, and so good."

The series continues next week with yellow crookneck squash, zucchini, an perhaps one or two other kinds of squash.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Complex Simplicities

The goal is simple: Create meals with local farm-fresh vegetables that are affordable, fresh, and require neither a recipe nor much time to prepare.

When my husband Jim and I began this project, I thought it would be quite simple. After all, we grow so much of our own food. We pick it fresh from the fields, often minutes before we cook it. Our preparations are fast and simple, largely because dinner comes usually at the end of long, hard work days and largely because we don't want to cook the flavor out of what we've grown.

Today, we took the goal to a different level, to a series of food tastings that we kicked off today at the Franklin Community Center, which has a food pantry in our community. And, I realized, simplicity is layered with many complex dimensions that highlight the hidden privileges that some of us, inadvertently and unconsciously, carry.

The featured dish was kale. Easy enough, I thought. Gather the vegetables, chop them up, rinse them and cook them in a pot with a little water for about two to five minutes. Salt and pepper, garlic, lemon juice, or apple cider could be optional additions.

I gathered a pile of kale leaves from our garden this morning, about a half-hour before departing for the Franklin Community Center. Jim and I created a flyer and a handout with recipes, and assembled a chopping board, knife, and colander. I washed the leaves and chopped them, and cooked a simple batch in two minutes. We timed it because we were curious how long it actually did take. We sampled our creation and distributed samples to clients of the pantry. It was fresh and crisp and flavorful.

Only, I realized later, it was a dish, not a meal.

So I started thinking, could I make a meal with just vegetables and water? Would this approach encourage people -- regardless of their income level -- to fall in love with vegetables and to see both their nutritional and economic benefits as flavorful as well?

The answer to that question has left me wondering about what it means to cook simple food. Exploring my own experiments in nightly meal preparations, I realized that one of the reasons that I can cook simply is because I have had the privilege to invest a lot of time and money into the items that make simple special: I have a great big backyard garden that borders on being a full-fledged farm that serves as my daily pantry. I have containers on my deck that are overflowing with fresh-raised herbs. I have a cabinet full of spices, and a refrigerator full of small bottles of such condiments as miso paste, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, Bragg's amino acids, lemon juice, apple cider, and yogurt. My messy kitchen holds four different types of oils, three different kinds of vinegars, and a range of nuts and seeds. So, yes, I can cook kale with water and make it taste just fine. But if I really want the kale to sing, it's likely that I would first slice up a couple of cloves of garlic, sauté them in oil and then toss in the kale. This is what I made for dinner tonight, alongside a leftover zucchini soup, a quick stir fry of garden fresh tomatoes, peas, and onion; and a fairly delectable chunk of seared ahi tuna.

I've found myself pondering how one might cook without a stove (or another source of heat), without an oven, without a collection of differently sized and shaped pots, and a bucket filled with spoons. Sure, I love to wrap Hakurei turnips in aluminum foil and let them cook over a grill or in the oven until they're soft. They need no butter, salt, or any other additive to acquire a melt-in-your-mouth taste. But they do require heat.

At the Saratoga Farmers Market this afternoon, I eyeballed the fresh produce on the vendors' carts, looking for ideas for the Franklin Community Center food tasting for next week. "What would be a good thing to make?" I asked a cooperative extension agent. She suggested a corn salad. I looked at the recipe, in a cookbook published by the farmers market, and it looked incredible. But it did require oil, herbs, and spices for flavor as well as additional vegetables such as onions and beans. It also required cutting the corn off the cob -- a simple task with a sharp knife and a chopping board, and an even simpler task with the specialized kernel remover that my youngest sister gave a couple of years ago. What if you didn't have these extra gadgets? Would you still be able to make a dish like this? Or would you settle for frozen kernels in a grocery store purchased bag? I found myself feeling as if this was turning into too much work. Did we really have to work within such restrictions?

As if reading my mind, Steve Otrembiak -- one of my favorite local farmers -- solemnly handed me a raw green bean. Grinning, he pointed to one that he himself was eating, raw.

"I could get some cookies," he said, "but I figured that this would taste just as good and be a lot healthier."

I bit into the bean and savored the burst of sweet green flavor that it produced. "It is like a cookie," I exclaimed. "Such a simple snack."

The flavor of the bean lingered, inviting new possibilities. Could we take vegetables that were uncooked and make them into meals? Perhaps it wasn't the condiments of cooking that were improving the flavor of the vegetables but the innate flavor of the fresh vegetable itself.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Growing Soil

Black turtles beans harvested in fall 2013
"We have a new compost pile," my husband Jim called out to our neighbor Tom as Tom came over with a gift of kitchen scraps and yard waste to add to the endeavors.

The fact that we had a new compost pile was almost news to me but in some ways no surprise.

For the past three years, Jim and I have been growing food in our backyard, and have gotten to a point where about 80 percent of what we eat year round comes from our gardens. I am quite proud and pleased by this accomplishment. Jim is, as well. But what really lights his face up is not the fact that he is growing food but rather soil.

"For the first time in at least seventy years," he proclaimed over dinner, "someone is actually growing soil on this land instead of depleting it."

Growing soil is an interesting side benefit of growing food, if you're growing your food in an organic, sustainable manner. There are multitudes of nitty-gritty details that I don't fully understand, but the basic premise is fairly simple: What you grow can nourish or deplete soil depending on what else is in the soil, and the more you contribute new organic matter to the soil, the better, more alive, and more healthy it will be over the long haul.
Compost creators; though the eggs taste good, too

The history of our land also is a bit a of a fuzzy store to me, but the general outline is as follows: Our house was built probably in the 1840s as a sort of farmhouse. Back in the day all of the land surrounding our current three-acre lot was attached to the house. The land was farmed for a number of years and used to herd dairy at some point. Some time after World War II, farming on the land stopped. The land started to be sub-divided and the house, instead of being transferred from one owner to another via inheritance, was bought and sold repeatedly on the real estate market. Growing food became a pleasant pastime called gardening, and things like "golf course lawns" came to be seen as more important than growing food. Over the decades, the soil got sandier and drier, and lost all of the healthy nutrients it once had possessed. By the time we moved into the house in 2011, very little land that looked like viable gardening space remained. The worst ravage to the land had occurred, in fact, just one or two years earlier when a teenage boy used a tractor to dig up the land and create a massive race track for the dirt bikes that the teens of this area favor.

The dirt bike was impressive -- in a way. It took up about half of our back yard and contained a series of hills and valleys, and six turns. Everything that was once alive around it had been matted down by tires and engine grease to dust. Whatever life the soil might have contained was gone. To make matters worse, the track covered most of the southern and western areas of the yard. The place was optimal for gardening; the soil, sadly, was not.

It was recommended to us that we hire a landscaper -- perhaps even an excavator -- to re-level the land and to cart in fresh soil. This was something we could not afford, and it seemed like it might prove to be an exercise in frustration because all of our neighbors were telling us that nothing could grow on that land -- the soil was too dry and sandy, the weather in the Adirondack foothills too unpredictable, and the insects and the wildlife too plentiful to sustain much of anything in the way of food at all.

These stories struck a familiar chord. In Honolulu in 1995, I had acquired a plot in a community garden that had been neglected for some years. It was full of weeds, particularly an insidious little thing called nut grass that contained a nut-shaped root ball deep below the soil. The root would sprout and re-sprout and new root balls would form. Yet, with encouragement of the other gardeners -- many of whom were locals of Asian ancestries who'd lived in Hawai'i all their lives -- I dug out the root balls and pumped the soil with new life. Hawai'i was so warm that kitchen scraps and rice could be buried directly into the soil, watered, and would break down within weeks. Within three months, basil, tomatoes, Okinawa sweet potatoes, lettuce, and a slew of salad greens were thriving.

The story repeated itself eleven years later when I returned to a home in Seattle that I had purchased with a friend about a year before my largely unplanned move to Hawai'i. I had started a raised bed of flowers, mint, and other herbs in the front and had a small but viable vegetable garden growing in the back. In 2006, however, all of this appeared non-existent. Wild thorny blackberry bushes had overtaken the back yard, dandelion plants were six feet tall, and an ivy that had vined itself fairly harmlessly over a fence had spread over a tree and into the soil literally choking it. Other trash and debris filled the yard, as well. I was told that there was no garden, no soil that could be restored. The only answer was to hire a landscaper and order in several truckloads of new soil. Since I really had no money this time around, I decided to take a slow, Zen garden like approach. I used a small set of pruning shears and spent twenty minutes each morning and evening snipping away at the weeds. My husband -- who is Caucasian, Christian born and suspicious of all things Zen -- watched me and laughed.

The following day, however, I came home to a transformed space. He had adopted my Zen garden approach with the fury of an elephant. With sticks and a heavy rake, he thrashed away at the weeds and vines, creating a pile of yard debris that, once re-discovered, went into the compost bin I had created a decade earlier. After three days of this furious activity, he pronounced success: he had found the garden I had dug and it had soil. Unusually rich soil, as it turned out, because it had benefited from the years of relative neglect by acquiring nutrition rich fallout from the blackberries, decaying tree bark, and the remains of countless rodents, victims of the neighborhood's band of cats.

We raised food in that soil for three years before a full-time job opportunity brought us to upstate New York. Walking through the race track that decorated our new home's landscape, I had a thought. The track edges and its divides between the various hills and valleys had left behind swathes of dirt-lined pockets, pockets that vaguely looked like raised beds. Could we fill those pockets -- one step at a time -- with topsoil and supplement it with materials like cow, goat, and sheep manure?

The potato harvest
For several local farmers, the answer was, "of course." A friend of a local contractor sold us several tons of sheep manure, and a couple who raised goats were more than happy to give us all the manure we wanted as long as we were willing to haul it away ourselves. My husband no longer had a need to destroy; he set out to create. In the first year, we raised tomatoes, peas, beans, cucumbers, too much zucchini, and enough potatoes to last us through most of the winter.

The experiment transformed the race track into what we dubbed the garden circle. In the next year, we continued to fill it with new soil and manure. All the while, we were planting and creating soil from the multitudes of weeds, grass, leaves, and kitchen scraps that were overflowing in our compost pile. By the end of the third year, we were reaping more food than we could eat alone. We evolved into canners, preservers, and donators of our abundance to others.

As year four unfolds, our gardens fill not only the space that used to be the race track but also a huge swatch of land to the east of it and a sizable chunk of our front yard. Our original compost heap has migrated from its space in the center of the yard behind a defunct milk shed to one of the old valleys of the track. It is taller and wider than the track, and it is full of life. Over the old heap are growing several varieties of winter squash, zucchini (which we welcomed back into our lives this year), and a multiplying number of sunflowers smiling and bobbing with the breeze.

The secrets to our success are many. We work our butts off. Our bodies and our clothes are often caked with dirt, and it takes copious amounts of chocolate each night to heal the sting of mosquito bites and the snags and thorns of unwanted weeds that plague us daily. The fresh and continual supply of garden-fresh vegetables and fruits that our fields yield more than compensate for the pain. But we both know that beneath this very rich reward of good healthful food and clean living in a very dirty way is the fact that every time we plant and nurture a seed to life we are helping to create new soil. Our years of living in Hawai'i taught us the value of the phrase Malama 'aina: care for and nurturing of the land. We do our best to carry out this mission every day.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Almost a free soup

After a three-year hiatus from our way-too-abundant crop, we are allowing zucchini to re-enter our kitchen again. Two big specimens of the summer squash that everyone seems to love to hate were gifted to us last Saturday near the end of the farmers market. Each one was approximately a foot long, and probably four or five inches in diameter. I resolved to turn them into a summer soup.

I found an easy recipe on the Internet and set to work. Because I had two jars of reserved soaking liquid from rehydrating dried mushrooms in the refrigerator, I decided to use a vegetable broth instead of chicken stock. I added a cup or two of water to the mushroom broth, and tossed in a diced potato, a couple of carrots, some garlic, and a handful of herbs. I was thrilled to note that making this broth cost me no money whatsoever because everything I used came from either stockpiles in the refrigerator, our storage bins of last year's crops in the garage, or fresh from the garden. The broth was a great way especially to make use of the carrots and potatoes which are nearing the end of their storage life after feeding us for nearly a year because the slow one-hour simmer of vegetables in water has a way of bringing out the delicate flavors of even the driest of vegetables and blending them quite tastefully into an integrated whole. I made the broth yesterday, and let it sit overnight. After straining the vegetable remains from the liquid, the soup was virtually ready to go.

The recipe called for about one and a half pounds of chopped zucchini. I didn't measure how much zucchini I put in; I simply cut my squashes into eight strips and then chopped the strips into bite-sized pieces. The recipe also called for fresh tarragon. Although I have tarragon growing in my garden, I decided to use a different mixture instead. This mixture consisted of cilantro, arugula, sage, thyme and oregano and was a result of a rapid-fire "haircut" that I gave to these herbs the day before to prevent them from going to seed. The snipped up leaves blended together emitted pleasant savory fragrance that I thought would complement the bland zucchini, as well.

This particular recipe was ridiculously easy: Combine the broth, zucchini and herbs in a pot; bring to a boil and simmer for seven to ten minutes. Afterwards, you're supposed to puree the mixture in a blender or food processor and then while re-heating it stir in grated sharp cheddar cheese. I simmered the mixture, and turned off the heat. On a whim, I spooned out a bit of the unpureed soup into the bowl, and realize that even without the additional steps, it tasted quite good. So good that I even added a small spoonful of the broth to a couple teaspoons of miso paste for a dressing to toss on the greens we were having as a side dish.

Because we already had dinner going strong for tonight -- a steak, potatoes, beets, peas, garlic, and greens all from the garden -- I let the soup cool on the stove before pureeing it. It turned out to be a lovely crisp green shade. I put it in the refrigerator, and will reheat it tomorrow with the requisite cheese. After, of course, sampling it clean.

I decided to write about this soup because my husband Jim and I have embarked on a project to encourage more people who live on very very tight budgets and/or receive food aid in some form or fashion to consider adding fresh, local produce available at farmers markets to their grocery lists. One of our goals behind this project is about combating the perception that farmers markets are upscale, boutique-like venues that sell exotic and different produce that's too expensive and too intimidating for the general consumer. In other words, you cannot shop at farmers markets unless you are rich. Jim and I know quite well that what is true is virtually the opposite. While people of all income levels shop at farmers markets, such markets can be a source of much abundance for those on penny pinching budgets. We learned this ourselves about seven years ago when we were receiving food aid for a brief period of time. The local office of the state's Department of Social and Health Services along with some friends encouraged us to try co-ops and farmers markets because EBT cards were accepted and encouraged at both locales. We discovered during those few months of hardship a range of shopping and eating tactics that stay with us today.

In writing about Zucchini Soup, I am reminded of the ways in which vegetables that overrun gardens like zucchini often can go to waste if one does not know what to do with them. I thought that the ease of this particular soup would create a meal that was virtually free.

As it turns out, I am both right and wrong. I spent perhaps $1 to prepare this soup, including the cost of sharp cheddar cheese, which I buy about once every two weeks in a two-pound block for about $10.50. But the reason I could prepare such a soup so frugally also had to do with the fact that most of the ingredients exist in my backyard farm/garden. To have bought everything that the soup (as I made it) entailed probably would have pushed the price of the dish up to about $7 or $8. That's still a pretty good deal, but it is not free. That creates an interesting dilemma in our food supply systems that I will try and work through in future posts.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

No Recipe Required

Dinner tonight was a bowl full of a lightly seasoned,  highly savory beef stew. In addition to the meat, it contained carrots, potatoes, and garlic from last year's harvest along with black peppercorns, and water. My husband Jim put the meat in a crockpot at about 2:30 p.m. By 8:30, its heady aroma filled the house, breaking through the hot humid air that has blanketed the Adirondack foothills where we live. I went out into the garden and filled a colander with leaves from a baby romaine plant, spinach, basil, arugula, sage flowers, pepper cress, and the first of our season's peas. To that mix, I added a dash of sweet onion, a small tomato, a chopped garlic scape, and a baby carrot. I tossed the mix with a small amount of balsamic vinegar mixed with a teaspoon of honey and some lemon juice. On a last minute impulse, I tossed in some freshly picked kale that I had wilted in olive oil.

The meal seemed perfect for a summer's night. It satisfied our appetites but didn't overwhelm us. In some ways, what was most amazing was the bill: $3.50 for the cut of beef we used, 35 cents for the tomato, and about 50 cents for the onion. Everything else was either a kitchen staple that we usually have on hand or came directly from the garden. And to top it off, we pretty much made up this meal as we went along. No recipe was required.

The idea of cooking without recipes, cookbooks or any other how-to guide on hand might seem incomprehensible to those of us who grew up with middle school home economics classes, and the wisdom of such cooking connoisseurs as Betty Crocker and Julia Child regarded as household essentials. The complexity of cooking craze is further fed these days by the proliferation of cooking shows and competitions like the Iron Chef that privilege multi-course meals built around "difficult" ingredients. Yet, it seems, simple is what creates gourmet. And by gourmet I mean spectacular meals that don't require a six-figure income (or even perhaps a five-figured one) to afford. They are meals that are great because they make the basic whole food ingredients the centerpiece. Rather than adorn the foods with trimmings, they dress them down so the eater receives the full experience of their flavor.

The cut of meat we cooked tonight was a shank, a cut that comes from a muscly part of a steer or heifer's leg. It tends to be a tougher, leaner cut of meat because of its muscle mass so appreciating its culinary contribution requires a long, slow cook, usually at a low heat. I never knew much about shanks until last winter when I happened to divulge to Kristof, of the Longlesson Farm in New York, that as much as I loved the high-end cuts of beef that he was featuring on his list of goods for sale at the farmers market, I was on a budget. His eyes glittered as he reached into his stockpile of available meats and cupped his hand confidingly around his mouth as if letting me in on a secret.

"For the budget," he said, "this is the best bang for the buck." From his cooler, he pulled out a shank -- a piece of meat that appeared to be quite thick and also appeared to contain a sizable chunk of bone.

"Four dollars a pound," he said. "You cannot beat that."

I knew it to be true on the basis of the price. While there might be cheaper beef at the grocery store, the meat from the grass-fed, locally pastured cows that the farmers who sell at venues like the Saratoga Farmers Market is better for its quality of flavor, nutritional value, impact on the planet, and nurturing of the animal before slaughter. The added care that independent farmers give their cattle can reflect a higher price. But four dollars a pound is hard to beat.

Kristof told me to put the shank in a crockpot or a large pot, cover it with six or seven cups of water, add some black pepper, and just let it cook slowly for eight to ten hours. At the very end, he told me I could add potatoes, carrots, or any other vegetables. He added that the leftover broth from cooking the shank would make an excellent base for a soup.

I took the shank home, and cooked it as Kristof instructed. The slow cooking allowed for a slow release of flavor that mingled pleasantly with the sharpness of the black pepper that Kristof had recommended as well as the fresh cloves of garlic that I also decided to add in. I reserved the broth, and made a hearty onion soup two days later. And even after that, enough broth remained for a second soup.

Needless to say, we were hooked. We cooked several shanks through the winter, and last weekend, as we faced our common scenario of scraping the bottom of our bank account in the few days prior to pay day, we contemplated menu options. Even though it was summer, we opted for a shank. We savored the meal, and as usual I reserved the broth. I am now considering possible ways to use the broth to create another meal. Pho perhaps? Or perhaps an early summer greens soup.