Thursday, February 28, 2008

It's Complicated

"We have to be careful not to rush from denial to despair," says John Elkington, founder of a British sustainability consulting business. The quote is from a fascinating article in the Feb. 25 New Yorker, on the complexities of measuring carbon footprints. Elkington worries that as we pull our heads out of the sand and realize the scope of our task in responding to global warming, we may just throw up our hands and stop trying.

I'll have more to say about the article later, because it made me question some of my own assumptions about sustainable living, but in the meantime it's online and well worth reading:

I thought about Elkington's quote Monday night at a meeting for the Whatcom Community Food Assessment Project. That's an ambitious effort to quantify the food situation in the county, in order to "help ensure a local food system that will sustain the land and livelihoods that provide adequate, nutritious food for current and future generations in Whatcom County."

It didn't take long for the folks at our table to zero in on the complexities of that worthy goal. If low-income people in the county are going to eat adequately and nutritiously, fresh healthy food has to be affordable. If future generations are going to farm, fish, and thrive here, our agricultural and fishing practices must be sustainable. If sustainable family farms are to survive in a competitive market, they have to fetch a good price for their products and they need to keep their labor costs under control. "It's a three-legged stool," said Tom Thornton of Cloud Mountain Farm. Sustainability, affordability to consumers, and adequate worker wages/business profit: all three elements are essential. Achieving them all can be a daunting challenge.

For example, I admire Rootabaga Country Farm, home of Samish Bay Cheeses among other organic, sustainably produced, top quality products. But their least expensive cheese retails for $16.99/lb. at the Co-op. Their other varieties sell for $22/lb., which means I can only assume they are delicious as I've never tried them. I trust their commitment to sustainable practices, I hope they are making a decent living, but the third leg of the stool is out of reach for most of their neighbors. (The farm will ship cheese to you via UPS for a lower price per pound, but the minimum order is $24 plus shipping.)

I did learn from Amber Dawn Hallet, the Sustainable Connections staffer who facilitated discussion at our table, that the affordability leg will be addressed in one new way this season at the Bellingham Farmers Market. This year the market vendors can accept food stamps.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Language of Love, with Gravy

Food is love
Food is fuel
Food is politics
Food is power
Food is culture
Food for thought

Feeding the Baby, Rudolf Epp, 1834

A New York Times feature on the intersection of food and romance has been circulating among my book club friends --

This is not about hot-date dinner dilemmas--oysters? chocolate? chocolate-covered oysters?--but about when, increasingly, dietary choices and their political or ethical underpinnings are deal-breakers in relationships. Can a vegan give his whole heart to someone who adores both him and Memphis BBQs pulled-pork sandwiches?

From there we’ve gone to thinking about food in our own families.

Here’s Deb Anderson-Frey’s response:

This line resonated:

“Food has a strong subconscious link to love, said Kathryn Zerbe, a psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. That is why refusing a partner's food 'can feel like rejection,' she said.”

My sibs and I inherited food as a love language from our mother. (And except for my brother, we're all just a little bit fluffy -- must be a sign that we got a lotta love.) In our household, as in what I suspect might be the case for most people from my generation, mothers carry and pass along the food gene. I'll go further to say that I believe mothers carry the culture gene, and even further, I’ll assert: "mother = culture." This is part of the reason why I am worried about the fact that my only offspring are sons! But I digress...

Growing up in our house there were often jars of kim chee, takuwan, and various other kinds of Japanese pickles and condiments that might be put out on the table to complement the beef stew. My dad (originally from Lacomb, Alberta) would say, "Put the lid on that stinky stuff and put it on the other end of the table." Mom's mealtime concession to him was that she always made gravy so he wouldn't have to eat his sticky rice bare, like we kids did. Mom cooked rice nightly, even to accompany dishes that already contained potatoes, or even spaghetti! (We didn't call it "pasta" in those days.) Mostly dinner was a color wheel - a slab of brown, something green, and white rice.

One of my sisters ended up partnering with a vegetarian, and raised kids as vegetarians. When the kids became half grown, she went back to eating meat. I knew that she became a vegetarian because she loved her partner, but I was never sure if she returned to living as an omnivore out of rebellion towards her domestic arrangement, or just because she missed the taste of meat. Food is her love language, too, and her dietary versatility is probably why she is the best cook among us.

My other sister married a man who became quite suspect (by the female members of the family, anyway,) after his first extended visit with us It wasn't only because he refused to eat the borsch which was the main dish at the Chrismas Eve dinner in the vegetarian household. All together we have found that he is just not that into food. Despite this, the marriage survives, and this husband is probably the most physically fit among us. This sister admits that she is not a very good cook, and that her kids belong to the fast food nation.

I married an omnivore whose mother said that as a baby he used to "cry between bites." He relishes everything I cook. I think he loves me.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Compostable (kind of) Deli Containers

The Bellingham Food Co-op is now using biodegradable plastic for its deli containers. The nice server at the Swan Cafe told me they were compostable, but he wasn't sure how fast. So I've been trying it out in my backyard bins these last few months. I've put some in whole, some cut into strips, and with or without first pouring boiling water over them. As yet, nada. The vegies, leaves, and shredded paper are decomposing in their leisurely cold-weather fashion. The plastic looks good as new.

A bit of research tells me that breaking the containers down into CO2, water, and non-toxic organics takes about 6 months in a high-temperature commercial composting facility and closer to a year in a home bin. The actual manufacturer's website, below, says 45 days, but I think that's a marketing fantasy.

These containers are a joint brainchild of Dow and Cargill, and are made from cornstarch--that's three strikes against them in some circles. The technology can also be used to make plastic out of sugarcane, potato, tapioca, cellulose, or soy protein.

My conclusion is that I'll try to remember to bring my own containers to the Swan, and when I forget, I'll be adding my bioplastics to the food-waste tote I share with my nice neighbors. But I am curious if others have hit on a home composting solution.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Pear-shaped Prose

Pear Trees, Gustav Klimt, 1903

One afternoon in our first year in Sumas, we arrived home from some errands to see a pickup in the driveway and a man’s legs up a ladder in our pasture. The rest of him was obscured by foliage. Completely unabashed when we walked over and introduced ourselves, he said he came every year to pick from “the best Bartlett tree in Whatcom County.” Sumas was like that. Another neighbor made an annual spring visit to harvest the impressive mole hills in our front yard. She said they provided the ideal potting soil--rich loam, brought to the surface and aerated by the work of those little mole feet--and she was right.

Certainly we had pears to spare: two giant Bartletts and a couple of winter Seckels overwhelmed us annually. Pear trees can easily bear for more than a century. Ours had been going strong for more than fifty years. Compared to apples with their pruning demands, and cherries with their proneness to wind damage and disease, pears are one of less troublesome tree fruits in NW Washington.

If there are problems, they are likely to come at the other end. Few people find fresh pears as addictively snackable as cherries, and they are more fragile and keep less well than apples. In the Sumas years we dried them, baked them, canned them, made cider both hard and sweet--and most years also took wheelbarrows full of wasp-munched windfalls to the cows and the hogs. (The chickens didn’t like them much.)

Washington grows more than a third of the pears produced commercially in the U.S., mostly in the Yakima Valley. Western Washington has relatively little commercial pear presence, but lots and lots of backyard trees, including one variety, the Orcas, that was identified on Orcas Island in 1972 and is sold through Cloud Mountain Farm among other specialty nurseries.

A February pear roundup
A couple of weeks ago I bought the Washington-grown varieties available at the Food Co-op that day and took them to my journalism class at Nooksack Valley High School. As a descriptive writing exercise, the students had to describe their impressions without any “opinion words”: no yummy, yucky, gross, tasty, nasty, scrumptious, etc. “But Ms. Morgan,” wailed one sophomore. “That’s my whole vocabulary!” Herewith, a selection of their impressions:

Bosc -- tough inside, encased in thick skin, no juice, hidden flavor, it kind of reminded me of what trees smell like in the summer, crunchy, mild, slightly sweet.

D’Anjou -- bursting juice, smooth skin; dissolves in mouth, very soft, smells like leaves, grainy, very sweet

Red d’Anjou -- rough skin, calm flavor, apple tasting, not a long-lasting taste, slightly bitter, grassy at first, sweet aftertaste, grainy; leaves the tongue evaporated

Concorde -- smooth inside, thick skin, slight juice similar to Red d’anjou, you can smell the sweetness, it’s soft and a little mushy but a little grainy, Smooth and subtle.

A couple of recipes
One way to establish your “longtime local foodie” kitchen cred is to haul out your copy of the Bellingham Farmers Market Cookbook from 1981. That’s back when the market was leading a hardscrabble existence over at the bus terminal, and we decided to compile a cookbook as a fundraiser. Gretchen Hoyt of Alm Hill Gardens was on that committee (as was I), which reminds me how long Ben and Gretchen have worked to promote sustainable local farming. Other familiar names in the local food scene include Lynn Berman, Holmquist Hazelnuts and Binda Colebrook.

Like most of the recipes in that funky comb-bound volume, this one for Stuffed Pears is simple and adaptable:

3 pears
3 tablespoons dried fruit
2 tablespoons chopped hazelnuts
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Peel, halve and core pears. Mix nuts, fruit, and lemon juice and fill pear cavity. Make a light sugar syrup with the 1/2 cup of water, or cook down 1/2 cup pear juice to form a light syrup. Place pears gently in syrup. Cover pan and steam pears 10-15 minutes until tender but not mushy. (Better undercooked than overcooked.) Remove pears. Thicken syrup with cornstarch and pour over pears.

My idea of the perfect pear pairing is a Comice with Roquefort. The sweet creaminess of my favorite pear matched with the even creamier texture and pungent bite of the cheese--oh my.

Here’s a different and admittedly weird-sounding pear/cheese combo, which I borrowed from Mediterranean Harvest (with attribution) to use in Winter Harvest. It’s good.

Côte d’Azur Tart

1/3 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted (you could substitute local hazelnuts)
1 1/2 cups chopped Swiss chard
2 tablespoons currants or raisins, soaked in 3 tablespoons dark rum (optional) for 20 minutes
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
pinch of black pepper
3 cups peeled, cored, and sliced firm pears, apples or a combination of the two
pastry for a double-crust, 9-inche pie

Preheat oven to 375. Toast pine nuts or hazelnuts lightly in an ungreased skillet over medium heat and set aside.

Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a medium saucepan, add chard, and cook, covered, over medium heat for 10 minutes, Drain and squeeze out all excess water once chard is cool enough to handle. (The chardy water is a good start for a vegetable stock.) Combine all remaining ingredients except the pears/apples in a large mixing bowl, then blend in the chard.

Smooth chard mixture evenly across bottom of pie shell and cover with fruit slices. Roll out remaining dough and cover pie, pressing to join edges. Prick top crust to let steam escape. Bake for 50 minutes to one hour, until crust is browned and filling firm. Cover top crust with foil if it brown before filling is ready. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 6

P.S. I’m only talking about European pears in this post. I’m no expert on the Asian varieties, though I find them beautiful, and their light, crunchy flesh refreshing.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Food is Love

My bookclub friends and I have been talking and emailing lately about food as love, as family culture, as politics, as power struggle, as pleasure. While I chew over what I want to pass on about our conversation, here's a "food as love" visual.

The pizza has home made sauce jazzed with some romanesco dip from the food co-op, Isernio chicken-basil sausage, and NW mozzarella.

The white cake has canned Washington cherries in it and is served with a sour cherry sauce.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Potatoes Cheer Me Up

Maybe because I’m fighting a cold, potatoes sound great to me today. So I’m reprising part of a column I did years ago for the Cascadia Weekly, back when it was still the Bellingham Weekly.

For me potatoes are the ultimate comfort food. Bland predictability is surely a big part of a spud's appeal: baked, mashed or fried, what you see is what you get. Still, I like to branch out, and Bellingham is a good place to do it. Herewith, some of my favorites:

Greek hashbrowns at the Rhodes Cafe. This is our Sunday morning breakfast favorite. They don't even bring us a menu anymore; I know what I like. Perfect hashbrowns of the chunky, not shredded, variety, topped with lots of lightly sautéed green pepper, olives, tomato, and onion, and sprinkled with feta. A half-portion is huge. Little Cheerful and Tony's do credible hashbrowns, but Rhodes's are the best.

Mashed potato chile relleno at Pepper Sisters. Mashed potatoes can be tricky. Since their smooth blandness--and their ability to soak up butter and gravy--is a big part of their appeal, innovations can easily go wrong. Some garlic is great, but too many additions miss the point. This dish deals with this dilemma by keeping the interest on the outside and leaving the mashed potato filling pretty much alone except for a few red pepper flakes. The chile, which too often is covered by a sliding mask of fluffy, tasteless egg batter, at Pepper Sisters gets coated in a thin layer of crispy cornmeal. That’s a big improvement in my opinion. Then the whole concoction rests on a pretty pink ancho chile cream sauce, just hot enough to enliven the proceedings without overwhelming the potato. Pepper Sisters' signature hominy and beans are the perfect foils for this unassuming dish. Potato and garlic enchiladas are another Pepper Sisters standby, but I like the rellenos better.

Casa Que Pasa's potato burritos are also justly famous, both for their sauce, their size, and their value for dollar.

If cold mashed potatoes are your secret guilty pleasure, you may be cheered to know that there's a recipe, from Peru where the potato story began, that dignifies your midnight snack.. I've seen many versions. This one is from the Territorial Seed Company Garden Cookbook.

Papas a la Huancaina
6 to 8 medium potatoes, peeled (Yellow Finns or Purple Peruvians recommended)
1 cup cottage cheese
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup grated firm goat cheese (you could substitute feta)
enough lettuce leaves to cover 4 plates
1/2 cup chopped parsley
4 sliced hard cooked eggs, optional
black or green olives, optional

Boil potatoes until soft. Remove from heat, mash immediately and add cottage cheese, cumin, and salt. (Especially with firm varieties like Yellow Finn or Purple Peruvian, if you wait till the potatoes cool your mash will be gooey instead of fluffy.) Arrange lettuce leaves on the plates. When potato mixture has cooled to room temperature, divide onto the lettuce. Sprinkle with goat cheese or feta and parsley and garnish with eggs and olives, if used.
Serves 4

Rhodes Cafe, 1046 Lakeway Drive, next to Cost Cutter, 714-9743
Pepper Sisters, 1055 N. State St., 671-3414
Casa Qué Pasa, 1415 Railroad Ave., 738-8226

Locavore note:
Potatoes, by the way, were probably the earliest introduced crop in this region. Tribes accustomed to maintaining prairies for camas harvest adopted the techniques to the potatoes that arrived with early European explorers. Native Americans were harvesting spuds on Whidbey Island by the early 1800s.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Grow Your Own Tea

I read a plaintive post on a Local Harvest website forum recently. The writer, an aspiring locavore, was looking for a local source of caffeine. Caffeine's a deal breaker for many foodshed purists. Barbara Kingsolver's family was just one among many that exempted coffee (and chocolate) from their experiments in local eating. It's one thing to give up lemons and avocados, but quite another to forgo the daily cup of joe. Tea drinkers have more options, however. Gardeners, at least in zones 7 and above, can try growing their own.

The following article, reprinted with permission from The Columbia News, profiles a backyard tea grower in Bellingham. Cloud Mountain Farm in Everson sells tea camellias.

By J.I. Kleinberg
For someone who decided to cultivate tea in his Columbia-Eldridge garden “just for the fun of it,” Doug Morrison knows an awful lot about tea. Doug and his wife, Norine, both natives of Canada, grew up drinking tea. By the time they moved to Bellingham from Michigan, about 12 years ago, he was already intrigued with the world’s second-most-popular drink (after water), and his curiosity finally took root in a sheltered corner of Norine’s rose garden.

For the uninitiated (myself included), terms such as black tea, green tea, oolong and orange pekoe have a familiar ring. Over a cup of prized Darjeeling (the “champagne of teas”), Doug explained some of the basics. Most true teas, as opposed to infusions of non-tea herbs, are either Indian or Chinese. Black, oolong and green tea are derived from the same plant; the difference is in how the leaves are processed: the more heat and bruising of the leaves, the darker the tea. Black tea is the most “fermented” (technically, oxidized, Doug explains), and green the least, hence retaining most of the plant’s natural antioxidants. Oolong is somewhere in between. Orange pekoe (pronounced “peck-oh”), or OP, is not a kind of tea at all, but refers to whole-leaf teas. Broken OP means smaller pieces, and “fannings” smaller yet. “Dust” refers to the smallest and least flavorful particles, and it’s Dust that is used in tea bags, I learn to my dismay.
In his own garden, along with a handsome “Northwest tea house” crafted of Western Red Cedar, Doug has three small Chinese (Sinensis) tea bushes. The largest, perhaps three feet tall, is about five years old and last year yielded its first harvest: 20 grams of tea.

Broadleaf evergreens in the camellia family, the bushes are glossy and green even on a gray January day. Acid-loving and in need of protection from the wind, the tea plants will produce inconspicuous flowers in the spring and
many sets of two leaves plus one end-bud ready for picking in May or June.
There’s more to tell: scented teas, such as jasmine and lychee; clipper ships racing holds full of tea round the Cape of Good Hope; porcelain, china and silver tea service; the opium wars; the “rumble, rattle and roll” of the water in the heating kettle; the origin of tea bags — Doug Morrison is a fount of
information. Perhaps one day, over another cup of tea, he’ll talk about his decades-long interest in mushrooms — but that would be another story.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Community Supported Agriculture -- What Makes a Good CSA?

Are you buying a CSA share this year? Have you tried more than one in the past? Sign-up time is coming up for the 2008 season, and some farms offer discounts to customers who commit and pay early.

Many growers are using the internet to fine-tune their offerings, allowing customers to choose from among an online selection for their weekly boxes. Some feature aerial farm photos, so you can see if those chickens really are ranging free.

I'm wondering what are your criteria for a good CSA and whether you have a local favorite. (Some readers are reporting problems with this blog's comment section. I hope I've got it fixed but would appreciate feedback. You could also try the tag board at right.)


Friday, February 8, 2008

La Vida Locavore: Finding Farmers

I was excited when "livin la vida locavore" popped into my mind a few days ago. I thought I'd coined a phrase. Sadly for my self-importance, a quick Google came up with hundreds of previous references. So mine is not to innovate, but merely to celebrate.

Anyway, I did find a handy reference, updated to November 2007, of certified organic farms in Washington, with their addresses and crops. If you are sleuthing for, say, Washington-grown wheat for bread flour (most of our wheat is the soft variety used for Asian pastas), Rickman Gulch Farm in Pomeroy grows it. Closer to home for me, Crowfoot Farm on Lopez Island lists wheat as a crop. What type? Enough to sell? If someone checks it out, I hope they will post the answer here.
Winter Wheat traditonal quilt design:

If you are considering your own backyard wheat harvest, I commend this report from essayist, former math teacher and author of The $64 Tomato, William Alexander:

Back to the listing:
I counted 33 certified organic growers in Whatcom County. The listing also includes the certified organic producers in Alaska, a hardy crew no doubt. One is for wild birch syrup, an Pacific-side alternative to eastern maple syrup. I had some maybe 20 years ago and didn't like it much, but that was an amateur experiment and probably this is better.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

2 Questions for NW Washington Gardeners

The seed and garden catalogs are rolling in, and I am--as usual--entering in to the delirious state that leads to thinking this is the year my shady back yard will produce watermelon.

So help me out with something practical? Please?

What are your favorite spinach types for summer and fall harvests?
What is your favorite seed catalog?


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Word Garden: Slug

by Gwen Head
Head, a former Seattleite, included this poem
in her second published collection,
The Ten Thousandth Night.
How can he dare to cross me,
this oozing footless tube,
lifting his alert pronged head
in the cuckold's gesture?
Long ago his nation
cast off the security of shells
and now go proudly naked
relying for safety
on the realpolitik
of sheer slug numbers.
Clearly he glories
in each nuance of slug calligraphy,
those sly paths of silver
that chronicle the progress
of appetite, and answer
the urgent appeals of the rain.
Perhaps he incarnates
the slug king of legend
who lay for seven days and seven nights
besotted in a saucer of beer
but did not drown
and who, but this test
won his dappled queen
and with her dangled upside-down
on a glittering rope
of commingled slime
convulsed and tranquil
as a hypnotist's pendulum.
Then together they passed
through the exorcist's circles
of slug bait unharmed
and will feat forever
on trilliums and tulips
if I choose to stay my foot.
I don't, but stand a moment musing,
their sticky deaths the mucilage
holding me earthbound
by all that is at once
most vulnerable
most destructive

Sunday, February 3, 2008

From the Archives: Winter Harvest

Update: Look to the right to see that Winter Harvest, substantially revised, was published in a new edition in Fall 2010.

My first cookbook, published in 1990, was Winter Harvest. It was inspired by the winter gardening charisma of my friend and neighbor, Binda Colebrook, and focused on Northwest cool-season produce that could be grown at home or bought from local suppliers.

Looking back through it recently, I was pleased to realize how many of the vegetables and techniques I wrote about then--and which some reviewers at the time found a bit weird for general consumption--are familiar fare now. When I would show up at the counter with fennel or radicchio back then, often as not the checker would have to ask me what I was buying. Now the conversations tend more to what I plan to do them. Extended farmers market seasons and CSAs also mean that it's easier to find these treats grown locally.

I wrote my rationale for winter produce before global warming, carbon footprints, and genetically engineered food were scary catchphrases, at least at my house. My focus tended toward good taste, good nutrition, and sustainable growing practices.

Now I'm curious whether others think that the ideas expressed in this part of the introduction hold up:

Why Winter Vegetables
Everything tastes best in its season. Whether your produce is from your garden or from the market, the best value for your money, your palate, and your health is in the crops that flourish most naturally. In summer, this is easy advice to follow. Who wouldn't choose fresh raspberries over stored apples in July? In winter, what used to be an inescapable cycle of seasonal food has begun to seem an exercise in self-discipline. It's hard not to be seduced by the ever-increasing array of produce from someone else's summer. But locally grown Brussels sprouts, properly cooked, really will taste better than corn trucked in from Florida.

Furthermore, the more local our food, the better we can assess its real costs and benefits. For example, nearly half the tomatoes sold in the United States between December and May come from the Culiacan Valley in Mexico. Americans want their produce spotless--especially when they are paying top dollar--so the tomatoes (and the workers who harvest them) are repeatedly and heavily sprayed with pesticides and fungicides. Then the tomatoes are picked green, bathed in chlorine, gassed with ethyline to stimulate reddening (but not ripening), and shipped across the continent, losing vitamins every step of the way.

When these tomatoes end up on the shelf in Seattle, they are still legally fresh, but they are neither tasty nor nutritious, and they may not even be safe. Assuming that they actually have been tested for violations of pesticide regulations--and that's not a safe assumption--they will have gone into the salad long before the lab reports are in. If the price tag on those tomatoes included the real costs in health and environmental damage, the product would be a lot less alluring. (Long-distance organic produce, though preferable, is not likely to rate much better nutritionally.)

Fortunately, there is no need to put purity before pleasure at the dinner table. When it comes to winter produce, good sense and good taste go together.

To support the claim about Brussels sprouts, here's a recipe from the book.

Brussels Sprout Salad
This salad needs small, sweet Brussels sprouts. Gardeners have an immense advantage here, for although Brussels sprouts keep fairly well, they hold their peak of flavor only briefly.
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, divided
1 1/2 cups sliced Jerusalem artichoke
*1 large celeriac, peeled and sliced into bite-sized pieces (discard any corky center section)
4 small leeks, white part only, chopped
1 pound fresh Brussels sprouts
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon rind (optional)
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
* If you want to use the more easily available--and cheaper--celery instead of celeriac, go for the more blanched parts at the base. One point of celeriac is that it has a less assertively "green" taste than celery stalks.


Combine 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and 3 cups of water in a medium bowl. Add Jerusalem artichokes and celeriac slices and let stand, covered, in the refrigerator until it's time to dress the salad.
Cook leeks in an inch of boiling salted water until tender but not slimy, about 5 minutes. Less cooked is way better than overcooked. Drain, saving the water. Bring water back to a boil and steam sprouts until crisp-tender, about 8 to 10 minutes. Dress with olive oil, the remaining 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and lemon rind (if used). Add salt and pepper to taste, mix, and check for seasoning.
Cover and refrigerate for an hour before serving. Garnish with chopped parsley.
Serves 4.
Winter Harvest is out of print, but it's usually available used in local bookstores (Hendersons in Bellingham has a terrific cookbook section) and online.

NW Washington Cheese: Paneer Edition

I'm guessing paneer (also spelled panir) is the least-known of the artisanal cheeses made in Northwest Washington. It's definitely one of the least expensive, and it's closely tied to our changing demographics, being a kitchen staple in many South Asian households. Appel Farms near Ferndale,, began making it around the time members of the Sikh community that has long farmed in the lower Fraser Valley began moving south into Whatcom County, where farmland was less expensive, soon to be joined by recent immigrants from India.

Paneer is an uncultured, unaged, quickly made fresh cheese. In the Appel Farms version it's made with milk from their 300-head herd. (That's the basic definition of artisanal cheese, by the way, that it's made on the farm with milk from that farm.) The only other ingredient is vinegar. In India, lemon juice and yogurt generally substitutes for the vinegar.

If you think cottage cheese doesn't have much taste, I have to tell you, paneer has less. It basically looks and tastes like solidified milk. If you already like bland foods, there you have a high-protein, easily digestible, locally produced treat. The Appel Farms website has instructions for sautéing, baking and grilling it with minimal additions. My tastes are less subtle--though I prefer to think more adventurous--and I value paneer for its role as a sponge (and a source of protein) to soak up the complex flavors in dals and curries.

Like the better known Greek Cypriot halloumi, and Mexican panela (which uses the Greek technique), panir doesn't melt when cooked, at least not when cooked properly. That makes it a useful visual and textural contrast in Indian vegetarian dishes, such as the Hindu staple, Palak Paneer.

I'm jumping the gun for Whatcom locavores with this recipe, since overwintered spinach won't get going in our gardens until we get a few warmer days, but here it is anyway. To me this combines creamy comfort with a touch of excitement. Isn't that what we want in life?

Palak Paneer

6 tablespoons vegetable oil (Indian cooking is one of the few times I branch out from olive
oil to a milder flavored type like canola; the absolute best taste is from ghee)
2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger root
2 chiles (Adjust the type and firepower to your taste; I like dried serranos, but my Hindu cookbook recommends fresh jalapenos.)
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
2 teaspoons cumin (I grind my own because the whole seeds keep their flavor longer and because I like to.)
1 teaspoon ground coriander (Same as above, plus you can toss surplus seeds in the garden and then you can have your own cilantro/coriander. A caveat, though. The plants grown from kitchen coriander are likely to race to flower and seed in zip time. For a good supply of cilantro leaves, you need the non-bolting types bred for leaf production.)
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 cup soy milk*
3 pounds fresh spinach leaves, or 2 pounds frozen, chopped fine (If you are using frozen, thaw it and press out extra moisture before adding to the pan.)
1 tablespoon tomato paste

4 sprigs fresh cilantro leaves
8 ounces paneer in 1/2-inch cubes
salt to taste

*Traditional recipes use mild yogurt or heavy cream; soy milk provides that same rich taste without loading up the cholesterol, since we're already going with whole milk cheese. I'm an old foodie so I have to watch these things. Take your choice.


In a large saucepan heat 3 tablespoons of oil and sauté the garlic, 1/2 tablespoon of ginger, chiles and onion slowly until golden brown. Mix in the cumin, coriander, turmeric, and soy milk. Add the spinach, handfuls at a time until it is cooked down, about 15 minutes total. The mixture should have the consistency of gravy. Cook a little longer if it isn't there yet.

Add the tomato paste, the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of ginger, and cilantro and keep on low while you prepare the cheese. In a medium frying pan, heat the remaining oil over medium heat, and fry the paneer cubes until their surface is browned. Drain and add to spinach. Cook for 10 minutes on low heat. Season with salt to taste. Serve over basmati rice.

Paneer is available at Appel Farm, at the Community Food Co-op, and at the Bellingham Farmers Market.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

From the Archives

In 1986 I wrote an essay on homesteading for the 20th anniversary of Pacific Northwest Magazine. PNW is no longer published, and I no longer live on the farm, but I still feel the connection to the cycles of the land that I tried to articulate then.

...What I like about my routine is the unmasked complexity of ordinary life. I like it that the weather is not just an annoyance or pleasure but a real shaper of events. I like leaning on the counter at the feedstore talking about winter rye, even though I buy it by the pound instead of the ton. My days have more drudgery, but they also have more resonance. I sniff the breeze for rain. I check the center of the compost pile, where the alchemy of decomposition can give off enough heat to cook an egg. I look for morels when the alders start to bud.

In a world full of events that seem random at best, and more often so terrifying in their logic that I can hardly bear to face them, I am entranced by the benign intricacies of barn and garden. The cow's surplus milk goes to the chickens. We rotate the chickens between pens each year, and plant corn in the pen that's empty. The cornstalks and overripe ears go to the cow, so she can make more milk for the chickens. Now that we have a young daughter, her mealtime mess is also the poultry's gain, and she likes both the chicken and the egg. Operating along with these homely household cycles are enough more mysterious ones for a lifetime of wonder: hawk and mouse, mushroom and rotten log, caterpillar and cabbage...

The young daughter of the essay now has a young daughter of her own. I hope Hailey, too, will grow up knowing where her milk and chicken and corn on the cob come from.

Why I like February, part 1

It isn't January

Corn salad (mache) was unfazed by the snow
and tall enough to get past the mud, and I've got lots of it.

It's still light when I get home from work.

My new blueberry bush is thriving

The Meyer lemon has set a dozen baby lemons.

Bulbs are up.
I don't remember everything I put here, but I know there's camas,
one of the most beautiful Northwest natives

I recently joined the Birchwood Garden Club and there's a seed swap this month.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Lentil Liberation

I've always associated lentils with big times--I expect because my mom made lentil soup as the midnight meal at the epic New Year's Eve parties of my childhood. Staying up late, watching a generally dignified set of adults get loose, lentil soup with ham. It all fit.

Later I fell in love with Indian food and its multicolored array of intriguingly named dals--moong, masur, urad, toor--lentils all. Like tofu, or potatoes, lentils are a flavor sponge, soaking up the salt and smoke of ham hocks or the warmth of cumin and chili.

What I didn't know until years later was that millions of those cooks in India were working their magic with legumes grown in Washington state. The Palouse hills of eastern Washington (and, ok, Idaho too) produce nearly all of the lentils grown in the U.S., the great majority of them for export. Meanwhile, specialty dals are imported from India to the U.S. for the Indian-American market, subject to the vicissitudes of world trade. (For example, the Indian government banned lentil exports in 2006 when drought drove up domestic prices.) It's not clear to me why this makes sense. Couldn't North American lentil lovers get their fix from the U.S. and Canadian growers who are actually looking for markets?

As a major crop in the fertile but fragile soils of the Palouse, lentils are a better environmental choice than most. Being legumes, they fix nitrogen in the soil and are often used to build soil quality in rotation with the more nutrient-demanding grain crops. They can be sown directly into stubble from the preceding crop, reducing the erosion from tilling. They are generally grown without irrigation, so they don't further imperil the aquifer to the extent of, say, potatoes. They are also currently endangered by the rising prices for wheat, corn, and soy, which are pushing growers into altering their rotations and sowing where the money is. If we lose lentil acreage to grow grain for ethanol in the name of energy independence, is that really progress?

So as local eaters, surely our mission is clear: Keep our lentils home! Buy a batch today! Post your favorite recipes in the comment section here!

And come August, never mind that tour of Normandy to try du puy lentil salad with duck breast. Head to Pullman for the annual Lentil Festival. Lentil Burgers on the grill, a big parade, bicycle races, and--for my money--some of the most beautiful agricultural landscapes on the planet.