Posts from — July 2009
These days I guess I’m getting pretty close to living my childhood dreams. Each week during harvest time, we cut lettuce, pluck basil, slice off squash, pull carrots, onions, and beets, clean garlic, and head out to the top of the farm behind our farm store to the berry patch where we stand and crouch and thrust our hands into the thorny canes to get at the warm, ripe berries.
We grow blueberries, lingonberries and raspberries in our small patch. There are also a couple of thornless blackberry canes that were a gift from another islander, which haven’t yet produced.
This year on the farm was the first year that there’s been enough yield to sell any raspberries. In the past, most of the fruit has gone to the “house shelf” where the farm family gets our bounty of cosmetically imperfect, but ridiculously delicious, produce. This year, there have enough berries to sell in the farm store and even at market, and still some left over to top waffles and cakes.
Most things on the farm are extremely precise — bed rotations are planned and replanned to ensure the right rotations of plant families; transplants are placed just-so to maximize nutrition and water for each plant and minimize weeds and water-loss. But the berries represent slightly wilder side of the farm, an unpredictable section filled with plants of different varieties (quarter-sized raspberries, translucent jewel-y red and sweet next to deep purple tiny berries, fuzzy, opaque, and deep in raspberry flavor).
Picking berries is an exercise in restraint and patience. Some fruit calls out — plump, shiny magenta but upon reaching out to pinch and tug, the fruit is still hard and resists pulling. You can keep pulling and force off a tart and tasteless berry, or you can leave it be and come back in two days to sweet, softened maroon perfection.
Then there are the moments when a huge full perfect berry calls out to be eaten. But on a working farm, berries are a cash crop — even in our small quantities — and there are plenty of less-beautiful berries that can’t be marketed, but can be enjoyed warm, right from the bush.
Yes, it’s a stretch, but I can’t help but draw lessons from the berries. Lately, I’ve been trying and trying to figure out where to go and what to do with myself post-farm. I’ve been trying to settle on a path and “pick” off a niche, but having just entered the field of sustainable agriculture and food and having just hit the 4-month mark on the farm, I guess I can’t expect any of my berries to be quite ripe. For now, there’s observation and waiting and maybe some preparation tasks (life weeding?) to get myself ready for what comes.
The canes have been winding down over the past couple of weeks. Their slowing seemed to signal the start of the end of summer. But yesterday, my visiting siblings and I took a walk in the summer sun and found some of the first ripe blackberries of the season. Being so close to food is nice — when one thing goes, another thing comes. Very cyclical and very reassuring.
July 30, 2009 5 Comments
My mum discovered this recipe on an old notebook while cleaning out some old belongings of my grandmother (aka Ah-Mah). Among the other recipes featured in the notebook was “dishwasher steamed fish” — perhaps not so energy efficient, but certainly intriguing.
Since we’ve had beautiful carrots for awhile and cabbages and cucumbers are starting to come on in abundance, it seemed like the perfect time to test out the recipe. The salty, sour, spicy pickles are just the thing to cool you down on the swelteringly hot days we’ve been having lately on the island.
My mum is coming to visit this weekend, and I’ll ask for her stamp of approval. Until then, there’s the fact that I ate more than a quarter of the pickles, picking out a cauliflower here and a sesame-strewn carrot there, while packing the jars and taking the photos.
Ah-Mah’s Spicy Achar Achar Pickles with some small notes and modifications from the original
2 lbs. cucumber
½ lb. cauliflower
½ lb. cabbage
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into strips
¼ lb. (approx one cup) roasted peanuts, pounded
2 tbsp. roasted sesame seeds
½ cup oil
1 thumb sized piece ginger, grated
3 oz. (approx one large) shallot
1 oz. fresh turmeric or heaping 1/2 tbsp dried turmeric
7 dried arbol chillies (soak in water and drained) + 1 large dried New Mexican chili OR 1 ½ tbsp. chilli paste + 5 fresh red chillies.
Ingredients B, mix together: 3/4 cup rice vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 tbsp. salt
Ingredients C, mixed together: 2 cups rice OR white vinegar
2 cups water
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. salt
Wash the cucumbers and cut off the ends. Julienne the cucumber into strips 2” long and 1/4” wide and 1/8” thick, removing and discarding seeds and soft insides as you go.
Place the cucumber strips in a bowl, sprinkle with salt, mix well and leave aside for 4-5 hours. Rinse, drain and squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Set aside.
In the meantime, you can prepare the pickling juice. Process Ingredients A into a paste, either with a mortar and pestle and brute force, or with a food processor. Set your paste aside.
Heat oil in a wok and fry the ginger till light brown. Add paste A and stir-fry till the mixture turns deep red, becomes fragrant and the oil comes up to the surface.
Add B and bring to a boil. Boil for a minute and remove to a bowl to cool completely.
Boil C in a pot and blanch the cucumbers, cauliflower, carrots and cabbage separately. Spread out to cool on large trays. Heat a wok and stir-fry the vegetables for 1/2 minute with a little bit of the oil from the vinegar mixture, skimmed from the top. Spread on trays to cool. When vegetables are cool, place in a mixing bowl with the pounded nuts, sesame seeds and chilli-vinegar mixture. Mix well, store in bottles and refrigerate.
July 27, 2009 2 Comments
On Tuesday night, a couple of friends, Heather and Eliza, gave a presentation on seed saving out at the “Blue Sky Room” at Sweet Earth Farm.
Everyone brought desserts: Lucy and her visiting friend brought a delicious bread pudding, I contributed zucchini bread, Elaine had warm fresh country loaves with butter, garlic scape pesto and hummus, there were some mystery Vegan cookies, and a bowlful of luscious red cherries from Eliza’s tree.
We convened at a bright blue canopy in one of Sweet Earth’s outer fields, past the orchard, listening to the pair recount their experiences from a workshop they attended at Michael Ableman’s Foxglove Farm in BC.
Seeds are fundamental to what we do on the farm; so fundamental, in fact, that they barely register on my consciousness. After all, as an apprentice, I’m not doing the ordering or choosing varieties. I see seeds every day, but they’re a fact-of-farming life that’s I take for granted. That they come from a packet from Johnny’s or Fedco or Territorial, or some other such company, that they appear outside the barn door out-of-the-blue, from the hands of the delivery man some afternoon, that they’ll germinate when planted, and produce whatever was promised by the glittering prose of the seed catalog: all these things are assumptions I make without thinking.
But if I’ve learned anything from my recent forays into food and farming, it’s that nothing should be taken on assumption, or taken for granted, and the same can be said for seed supplies, especially of heirloom and “rare” varieties. As seed companies continue to consolidate, as new seed technology changes the bounds of “intellectual property,” as farmers lose the knowledge to save and breed seeds, and as universities continue to focus on research that benefits large corporate donors rather than small organic growers, it becomes more and more important to pay attention to the alternative seed-saving networks and businesses.
Some particularly interesting tidbits I came away with in our little discussion:
- The state of heirloom seeds may actually be degrading because large-scale growers don’t tend to select carefully or maintain “pure” lines of heirloom seeds. Instead, they tend to invest more time and effort in keeping hybrid varities pure.
- Some plants need huge isolation distances (miles!) to decrease the chances of cross-pollination and subsequent deterioration of the line. So in places like the Skagit Valley in WA, there are pinning maps to keep track of farmers growing certain types of seeds, and extension offices have the responsibility of figuring out who’ll have the right to grow certain seeds, where, in a given year.
- Seed packet dates are the packing dates not the dates the seeds were grown or harvested. Seed growers often pack and sell seeds at least one, and up to three years after the seed is grown.
- Obvious, but also not so obvious: Seed growers have to actually “grow out” their seed to make sure it’s going to perform as expected. For most seeds, this isn’t a problem — farmers grow seeds one year, test them the next year, then sell them in year 3. For things like onions that don’t keep, farmers must send seeds directly down to the Southern Hemisphere for testing so they can sell them immediately.
- Most seeds aren’t really selected for flavor, but more for germination, disease resistance, cosmetics, ease of harvesting, and other “efficiency” factors.
Apparently, there are already about 1,400 seed banks worldwide. This doesn’t appear to include informal seed exchanges or small-scale heirloom breeders and producers. The 1,400 “banks” that are accounted for operate under all sorts of models. Some are distributed, with members across a country or region sharing and documenting particular varieties, while some are consolidated at one site. Some are “working” banks where seeds are propagated and possibly bred and improved, while some are simply vaults.
The world’s largest seed bank for edible plants is on a remote Norwegian island near the North Pole. It was opened in February 2008, and its operational costs are covered by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an organization which has received funds from various governments, as well as philanthropic organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. So far, the vault contains approximately 400,000 of 1.5 million known edible plant species.
After our own island discussion, we discussed a couple of options: creating a seed “coop” where farmers take responsibility for growing and saving seed from particular varieties well-suited to the local climate. Eliza also talked about starting a small business in one of the seed crops particularly well-suited to the islands: something like broccoli or cabbage or kale. Either one seems like it would be a step in the right direction.
There are multiple businesses popping up, dedicated to the production, improvement, proliferation, and conservation of high quality heirloom and organic seeds. Wild Garden Seed in Oregon is one. This new rare seed bank, awesomely housed in a renovated actual bank, is another.
There are also lots of nonprofit and membership organizations that are trying to do some of the same things through seed exchanges and seed banks.
- www.seedsavers.org – Non-profit, member-supported organization that saves and shares heirloom seeds from around the world
- www.seeds.ca – Canada’s seed-saving organization for gardeners; maintains an online database of over 1900 varieties of fruits, vegetables, grains, flowers, and herbs.
- www.neptl.org – Northeast Portland Tool Library’s pilot seed exchange project
- http://www.navdanya.org/news/4dec07.htm – One of India’s many seed bank projects
- http://www.kew.org/msbp/index.htm – A seed bank for wild plant species, managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
July 26, 2009 3 Comments
Special zucchini bread with ginger sesame topping, adapted from 101 Cookbooks won second place in the tasting competition. The “special ingredient” has the tasting panel scratching their heads, and then exclaiming in wonder.
Hooray for summer! Every day on the farm brings new, exciting, and delicious bounties. Lately, the summer squash has gone for broke, and we’re swimming in bright green zucchinis, stripy zucchinis, pattypans, and this curious fellow:
This year, one of our seed suppliers, Johnny’s, sent out the wrong seeds to everyone who ordered Costata Romanesca squash. In fact, the lovely round squash isn’t a Costata at all, but something else: still delicious and prolific, but rounder and slightly wetter than what we bargained for.
Turns out the mystery squash is perfect for zucchini bread. The seeds inside (even a larger one) aren’t too big, so I just chopped off the stem, cut the squash in wedges, and used a food processor to shred it all.
I tested three recipes, a traditional sweetish walnut-cinnamon-nutmeg loaf, a slightly zany nutty loaf with a secret ingredient, adapted from 101 cookbooks and a savory zucchini-basil muffin recipe, adapted from a message board post on a Chowhound message board.
The tasting panel generally agreed that the zucchini basil muffins won out, with the zany recipe not far behind. The more traditional recipe turned out too dry and slightly over-sweet. It could have done with some soaked raisins and extra zucchini.
Since I was making three recipes, I cut all the batches in half, and the resulting recipes are what came of those adjustments, plus my own small customizations. I added extra basil to the muffins, because it’s tough to overdo it with fresh basil; I changed the ingredients slightly on the “Special Zucchini Bread” to include sesame seeds and ground ginger, and reserved half of the mix’ns to sprinkle on the top for crunch. When I halved a recipe that called for 3 eggs, I used a peewee egg, plus a regular egg, but a yolk would do just fine.
FIRST PLACE: Zucchini Basil Muffins
Adapted from the LA Times by way of Chowhound.
1 large egg
1/3 cup milk
1/3 cup oil
1 c. all purpose flour
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup shredded mystery zucchini (or any other type should work fine)
3 tbsp sweet basil, finely minced
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese to top
Beat egg in bowl, stir in milk and oil, then mix in sugar.
Sprinkle baking powder and salt evenly on top.
Mix in flour until just moistened, then gently mix in zucchini and basil.
Fill a well-buttered muffin tin so that the cups are nearly full (slightly more than 3/4). Sprinkle with cheese. Bake at 450 degrees, 20-25 minutes.
Makes 6-9 muffins. You can easily double for a bigger batch.
RUNNER UP with special mention: Special Zucchini Bread with sesame crunch
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks
1 cup chopped walnuts
zest of one lemon
2 tbsp crystallized ginger, finely chopped
1 tbsp ground ginger
2 tbsp sesame seeds
1/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup fine grain natural cane sugar or brown sugar, lightly packed
1 large egg + one yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cup grated zucchini
1.5 cups whole wheat pastry flour (or all-purpose flour)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 tbsp curry powder
Preheat your oven to 350°F. Butter one 5×9 loaf pan, dust it with a bit of flour and set aside.
In a small bowl combine the walnuts, sesame seeds, lemon zest, and gingers. Set aside.
In a mixer, beat the butter until fluffy. Add the sugars and beat again until mixture comes together and is no longer. Add the eggs, mixing well and scraping down the sides of the bowl between each addition. Stir in the vanilla and then the zucchini (low speed if you are using a mixer).
Sprinkle the baking soda on top of the mixture. Then sprinkle on the salt and curry powder as evenly as possible. Add the flour in 1/2 cup at a time, stirring until just incorporated each time. After the last batch of flour, fold in half of the walnut, sesame, ginger mixture.
Put the batter in the greased pan, making sure it is level with a spatula or the back of a spoon. Then sprinkle on the other half of the walnut, ginger, lemon mixture.
Bake for about 40-45 minutes on a middle oven rack. Check the bread after 35 minutes and cover if it begins to brown too quickly. The loaf will be done when an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Take the loaf out from the oven and let cool for about ten minutes, then remove from the pan onto wire racks to finish cooling.
Makes one loaf. To double, use 3 eggs instead of 1 egg + one yolk.
July 25, 2009 4 Comments
Today is Friday. My birdboy left yesterday on the 5pm ferry. He’s gone for another year, and I’m grey.
We had a day of fun: cast-iron farm breakfast of ham, eggs and potatoes, coveting an electric smoker at the thrift compound near Roche Harbor, a beautiful hike along the island’s edge where we saw nice things in tidepools, running past the stench of a rotting deer, last minute scoldings, and some yummy Mexican food.
I took off from the ferry landing, dropped off some magazines at the magazine exchange outside the hardware store, then spun the 3 miles or so back from the ferry landing to my yellow water tower, where I trudged up the stairs, plonked down, and felt sad.
To keep myself busy, I took pictures of saffron for a new project I’m working on, details to be announced soon. Then I started researching grad programs and did some reading and made some comforting hot chocolate and ate too many Cadbury eggs — the kind with the candy pastel shell.
July 25, 2009 No Comments
Young female chickens are called pullets. Our pullets are Rhode Island Reds, just like the rest of the flock, and they’re around 5 months old, just the age to begin popping out eggs. Apparently, many chickens lay misshapen, funky creations when they first start out, but all we’ve had so far is three perfectly proportioned, if mini, eggs.
Some farmers purport that peewee eggs are the best eggs. I haven’t yet cracked my peewee, and I guess by now it’s already past the peak of freshness, but I can see why people might jump on that bandwagon since things like mini carrots and mini zucchinis and other small foods seem to be quite popular (much to the dismay of Farmer Susan, who rightly thinks it’s a waste of the plant’s potential, of bed space and nutritious soil).
But there’s a short window between peewees and the major leagues (USDA medium, large, and jumbo eggs): only 3-4 more weeks from first peewee to those eggs you find in grocery store cartons. In the meantime, perhaps I should be hoarding all the tiny eggs I can find and popping them like vitamins, kinda like this guy.
July 19, 2009 No Comments
This week on the farm, we’ve hit upwards of 90 degrees, but last week, it was dripping cold, wet rain. Oh, Pacific Northwest and your multiple meteorological personalities! In some climes, folks leave their garlic bulbs in the ground to dry out, but the wet weather meant that we had to get those puppies out ASAP or face the wrath of the gods of mold and mildew.
So over a couple of hours, broken up by spits and spurts of rain, Susan, Lucy, Colin and I harvested the garlic from 4 beds, about 600 square feet in all. The cloves had been planted on October 15th of last year into 4 inches of our own farm compost where it germinated and grew and then overwintered under a layer of straw mulch. Something magical happened between then and July because the plants were tall and strong and the white tops of the bulbs peeking up from the wet soil looked more like good-sized onions than garlic.
We carefully loosened the soil around the bulbs with a broadfork inserted 3-4 inches away, so as to keep from piercing the bulbs. Then we pulled. And pulled. And pulled. And pulled. Until all 1500 or so bulbs were free from the soil and safely carted off to racks in the barn to dry.
The next day, I tied and hung those extra bulbs up in the back of the barn, 10 bulbs to a bunch, four bunches to a hook. The s-hooks were made of 9-gauge wire, skillfully looped over a lowish beam so that they could be shimmied left or right along the beam to make room for the rest.
Susan and I weighed some bulbs and found that they ended up somewhere around 3-to-a-pound. Big and bulging, with something like 5 or 6 kumquat-sized cloves to a bulb. We all took some back to our kitchens (Lucy held no punches, and went straight for double green garlic soup) and some got all clean and dolled up to sell in the farm store.
July 18, 2009 4 Comments
This book kicked off my current obsession with preserving foods — I think it’s such a fascinating part of all the food-related issues I’m interested in. Plus, where else can you read about Attila the Hun’s “gallop-cured” meat — preserved by the up-and-down motion of the rider, plus the salt from the horse’s sweat. Yum.
I’ve been reading all I can about the alternative models of agriculture and food business that have arisen as if in opposition of our current dominant industrial system: all kinds of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) structures, farmer distribution coops, artisanal & local cheese or bread or pickle operations, community food coops, canning coops, community kitchens.
Many of these businesses operate by adding “value” to food by cooking or packaging, and a lot of this “value” is in the preservation of food for consumption by the public.
With all the media and hype about local, small-scale food production, and my own new-found and deepening interest in sustainable agriculture and food production, it’s also wonderful to get a perspective on the history of food as we know it.
I knew, but I didn’t really realize how very new our concept of food is. The idea of eating fresh food, whenever, wherever we want is so foreign within our cultural history, and even still in most places in the world and yet many folks in the Western world would be offended if someone told us it might be more healthy and more sustainable and more “normal” to eat a different way.
On my new favorite podcast, Deconstructing Dinner, they recently aired an episode documenting the reactions and thoughts of members of a newly created CSA at the end of its first season. Here’s an apt thought from one member:
“The idea that the food dictates the menu, I think would be a helpful shift for all communities to begin to make. Given the amount of energy that is spent to bring food from afar because we want our menu to dictate what we’re going to buy. It would be a paradigm shift to say, okay, we’ve got some cabbage now and we’ve got some kale and we’ve got broccoli and okay, what are we going to do with that. [...] It would be nice to see larger communities, larger cities make that shift, not only in food, but in everything we consume.”
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
July 17, 2009 1 Comment
I’ve realized lately that I’m becoming less and less able to process lactose. I’ve decided that rather give in completely to the monster that is my digestive system, I will fight this wretched condition and continue to eat cheese and ice cream and yogurt and milk chocolate.
But there’s a limit to my masochism, and in the morning, when I’m just waking up and drinking my cup a’ joe, I tend to use soy milk.
In this hippified town, there are about 100 options for a person like me who wants to purchase a smooth, nutty, frothy delicious box of soy goodness. I prefer plain, unsweetened, unflavored versions, which limits my options somewhat, but still, I have choices and really no way to differentiate other than price and the prettiness of the packaging.
So I was delighted to come across Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Soy Scorecard. Cornucopia came up with a rubric to determine the “goodness” of various soy brands based on criteria like the business structure of the company (family business=good, investor owned corp=bad), percentage of organic soybeans purchased, transparency of purchasing information, etc.
Unfortunately, my last purchase, on sale at the local market, came out with a “zero bean” rating — which means it was a poor choice. Next time, I’m going to go for Eden. It came out number one, it’s offered at my local coop, it’s only slightly more expensive, and it tastes so much more delicious (it’s a toasty brown and tastes like a handful of nuts mixed in cream). Mmmmm.
July 14, 2009 16 Comments
July 13, 2009 No Comments