Monday, April 28, 2008

Eating it All

From the Magill University collection of World War I propaganda posters

Ever since I read the very first edition of Diet for a Small Planet nearly forty years ago, I’ve been uncomfortably aware of the environmental consequences of eating lots of meat. I never totally renounced it, but I didn’t (and don’t) eat much.

But when we moved to Sumas, other factors came into play. Meat animals are part of a homestead economy. They use the land that isn’t in crops because of topography or time considerations, they eat the windfalls, their manure nourishes the vegetable garden and the orchard. My first years there were a crash course in all the meat cookery I had never learned when I was a dumpster diving, commodities cooking, far from starving student. I thought more about the stories I heard from my Tibetan friends Rinjing and Yeshe. As Buddhists, they had a mandate to avoid killing; as realists in a region with little arable land, they had to eat meat or starve. So for both spiritual and practical reasons, they tried to waste nothing.

On the farm I learned to cook oxtail, tongue, sweetbreads, and beef heart; I learned to render lard, and of course I made all my own soup stocks from scratch. I didn’t tackle brains (though I have since had them in taquitos), and I didn’t, unlike my neighbor Bill Waddell, stash a freshly butchered hogs head in the kitchen sink until I could get back to it to make head cheese. (That project was deep-sixed by Bill’s wife Sharon when she got home from work and found it.)

And though I was inspired by Rinjing and Yeshe approach, I never tried their recipe for sheep’s lung stuffed with spiced flour and boiled. A sample instruction: “Blow the lung up by breathing into the windpipe. Close the windpipe so the air cannot get out and dip the lung in water to see if it is airtight. If it leaks, it cannot be used.”

Nor did I make their Broth Soup, which like the Sheep’s Lung is featured in their fascinating book, Food in Tibetan Life, but you could:

3 lb marrow bones, preferably smashed into small chunks (Tibetans use a large mortar called a tsom.)
3 teaspoons salt or to taste
4 beaten eggs
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
15 cups water

Put bones in water and bring to a boil. Simmer on low heat uncovered for 30 to 40 minutes. If the bones you use are not in small pieces, you may want to cook them longer, even for several hours, to extract more flavor. When you do this, keep the cover on at least part of the time to keep the broth from cooking away. Drain the broth from the bones. Then add the beaten eggs and the salt. Blend or mix well. Add the cilantro, stir, and serve in bowls.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

From the Archives: Vegetable Love

I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation. It was one of the most bewitching sights in the world to observe a hill of beans thrusting aside the soil, or a rose of early peas just peeping forth sufficiently to trace a line of delicate green.

--Nathaniel Hawthorne

How Green is My Alley

Late April in the alley bed: a bit of this and that
Although far from fully local in my eating, I have cut way back this winter and spring on the purchase of perishable food from far away. (A master’s thesis topic for someone: A writer’s repetitive diet makes for much alliteration.)

That means that I’m paying more attention to my homegrown spring greens, which also means I’m getting a bit tired of mustard greens. I have a lot of them. They were in a mesclun mix I planted last spring, and since I’m not all that crazy about that flavor in salads, a lot of them stayed on in the alley box to reseed.

Right now I have kale, a bit of arugula, some fall-seeded chard that is just getting going, the last of the leeks, beet greens, lots and lots of corn salad, and that mustard. Usually the early lettuce and spinach would be salad-ready by now, but the cold weather has slowed it down. Except for the mustard and corn salad, there isn’t enough of any one thing to make a meal, and I don’t want a full meal’s worth of either of those worthy greens. Also, I’m busy lately, so pretty much anything I cook needs to be either really fast or something I can make in quantity.

So here are some places I’ve stashed quantities of mixed greens lately.
Lentil soup--Like minestrone, lentil soup can absorb huge quantities of greens without overpowering the taste.

Lasagna--My spinach lasagna has become mustard/chard/kale/beet-green lasagna. I haven’t heard any complaints.

Spinach Rice Pie--This version isn’t spinach and it isn’t actually a pie, but it’s still good. The original recipe is from Winter Harvest.
3 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
3 pounds fresh mixed greens
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup pancetta or bacon, cubed (optional)
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 large clove garlic, chopped
1 cup rice, preferably Arborio or some other risotto variety
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1/3 cup dry bread crumbs
4 eggs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1 tablespoon chopped marjoram (use less if you are substituting the strong flavored winter-hardy oregano) or 1 teaspoon dried
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
salt and pepper

Simmer broth over low heat. Discard any tough stems from the greens and steam the leaves until soft. Time will vary with the type of greens. I like to cook them in a heavy skillet with a just a splash more than the water they were washed in. Remove from heat, chop, and press excess moisture into the broth. It’s way too good to waste. Heat olive oil in over medium heat and add pancetta or bacon (if used), onion, and garlic. Sauté 5-10 minutes until onion is limp. Mix in rice and cook 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly.

Reduce heat, return greens to skillet, and bring to a slow simmer. Cook, adding broth 1/2 cup at a time, stirring frequently and allowing rice to absorb the broth before adding more. This will take 20 to 25 minutes. The rice should be creamy. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350. Grease a 9-inch quiche dish or pie pan and sprinkle with bread crumbs. Shake off excess crumbs and reserve for topping.

Combine eggs, Parmesan, marjoram, nutmeg, salt, and pepper in a large mixing bowl and beat will. Stir in rice mixture. Taste and adjust seasoning. Spoon into quiche dish or pie pan, spreading evenly. Sprinkle top with remaining bread crumbs. Bake until firm but not dry, about 45 minutes to an hour. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Roasted Greens and Pasta: Change the heat source; change the flavor.

This is more a procedure than a recipe. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Take a mess of greens, wash them, and tear into bite-size pieces. Put a little olive oil on your hands and rub them through the greens to coat very lightly. Arrange greens on a cookie sheet. For less oil and easier cleanup, put them on baker’s parchment or maybe one of those pricy but very cool silicone mats. (I got mine at Pacific Chef in Fairhaven.) Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and put in the oven. Check after 5 minutes and keep checking frequently. You want the greens to start to get crispy and brown on the edges but not burnt black. Remove from oven when you’ve hit that point.

Meanwhile, boil water for pasta. I like to use whole wheat shells, but any smallish pasta works. Add the pasta and cook until just a bit too al dente. Toss in the greens and cook another minute. Drain, return to saucepan, and add some chopped savory black olives. I like the oil-cured ones from the Food Co-op.

Season to taste with salt, pepper, and a dribble of olive oil. Serve grated Parmesan or Romano on the side. I was surprised how little cheese it took to bring this very simple dish into focus.

All the while I've been writing this, I've had the current crisis in skyrocketing food prices on my mind. Part of me wants to chide every newly affluent Chinese or Indian eater who is devoting disposable income to, say, corn-fed beef, and therefore contributing to desperation in Haiti and $4.50 a loaf bread prices for me. Another part of me is thinking--if I consider it a challenge to stay interested in one type of vegetable for more than a few weeks at a time, how on earth can I judge someone else who wants some new flavors in their kitchen? When something is both a basic necessity and an endlessly refinable pleasure, it's never going to be simple to do the right thing.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Urban Poultry

If you are my neighbor, you've probably already seen this in the Columbia Neighborhood newsletter. If not, it may give a hint why a country girl like me is happy living in this part of town.

Suzanne Scala has lots of reasons for keeping a flock of chickens at her Washington Street home.

She’s used to them, having raised poultry for years when she lived on acreage on Lummi Island. She likes the way they cheerfully convert kitchen scraps to fertilizer for her garden. She enjoys seeing them out her kitchen window, preening and pecking in their pen. She likes gathering the eggs--white, brown, blue, and green--and carefully washing and drying each one. “It’s like a meditation.” She likes the way they have helped build relationships in her corner of Columbia as neighbors bring by scraps and buy eggs from a cooler on her porch.

“I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to have chickens,” she says.
The one thing she doesn’t do is actually eat the eggs (or the chickens). She and her daughter are both allergic to eggs, and the hens are too well-loved to convert to coq au vin when their laying days are done.

Thanks to a notice in Flip Breskin’s email newsletter a few months back, Scala’s Rhode Island Reds, Arucauna/Americanas, Buff Orpingtons, Crested Polish (the ones with the topknots) and Cochins (the ones with feathers down to their feet) are probably the best-known poultry in the neighborhood, but they are by no means the only ones. Several households have a few hens, and a few have more than a few. On North Street, Susan Harvey and Craig Kaskes keep a considerable aviary of doves and laying hens, sometimes joined by turkeys. Both past Columbia Neighborhood Board president Katie Hinton and new member Wendy Bloomenthal keep chickens. (Aspiring board members may want to take note.)

Bellingham City ordinances allow poultry, and other livestock in residential neighborhoods, as long as their enclosures are sanitary, they don’t exceed allowable levels of odor or noise, and in the case of chickens, they are not dyed Easter egg colors. Total animal weight is not to exceed 800 pounds per acre, which presumably means that a double-lot household could handle an alpaca or maybe even a llama. Within memory, Columbia has been home to pygmy goats and even a backyard horse.

Besides their contributions of eggs, fertilizer, and companionship, chickens are efficient bug eaters--although, sadly, they don’t like slugs--and they do a fair job of keeping down new weeds once garden plants are well established.

Some farms use chickens in moveable pens to help prepare rows for planting. That’s the next chicken project on Scala’s to do list. In the meantime, she says, “I spend a lot of time just watching them--it’s chicken TV.”

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sour Tastes for Locavores

Oxalis oregana is a sweet (and sour) little Northwest native.

Northwesterners aspiring to a foodshed diet may pine for the taste of sour. If you pass by the grocery displays of lemons and limes and don’t fancy swigging local vinegar, what’s left? Some people seem born with a craving for sour tastes. One of my daughters would suck on a lemon slice in preference to scarfing a brownie, to my chocoholic amazement. Years later when we met some of her birthrelatives, we learned that a slice of lemon was also her great-grandmother’s standard treat.

Recent taste studies involving identical twins indicate that the neural receptors for sour tastes do in fact vary markedly with family genetics. People who have fewer receptors for this flavor tend to crave more sour; folks with an abundant supply are quicker to reach overkill. Maybe they are the ones who keep the sweet pickle manufacturers in business.

Sour tastes and hot weather seem to be a natural pairing, and hot-climate cuisines have developed a wider array of flavorings than we commonly see in the Pacific Northwest. Amchoor, the powdered green mango popular in Indian cuisines, is one astringent example. Tamarind, common to both Asian and traditional Mexican cooking, is another.

If you want homegrown sourness, here are some possibilities.

Local nurseries carry Meyer lemons and other dwarf citruses. The Meyers are generally considered the easiest and hardiest for Northwest gardeners. I’ve had mine for a decade and it’s been outside into the high 20s a few times. When it’s indoors for the winter its glossy foliage and waxy, heavily sweet-scented flowers are an extra holiday treat. This year I used it as my Christmas tree. Having said all that in its favor, I have to admit mine has produced very few actual lemons--the real point of the quest for sour--in the past few years. I think a repotting is in order.

Sumac—The small berries of the staghorn sumac yield a flavor that is better known in the Middle East than here. In Europe it was a well-known souring agent before the importation of citrus fruits. It’s a nice, fresh taste, tart but not bitter, and when used for herb tea or “lemonade” it makes a lovely pink. Sumac powder, either plain or mixed with thyme and sesame--the spice combo known as zataar--is sold at the Mediterranean Deli behind Sehome Cinema. It is used in lamb dishes, including the eponymous Iranian soup ash e-somaq.

If you want to grow your own, sumacs are beautiful little trees with velvety branches and flamboyant fall color, but be forewarned that they spread very aggressively. Be prepared for constant vigilance if you don’t want your specimen to turn into a grove.

There are at least two genuses called sorrel, the culinary variety Rumex and the multiple wild and ornamental types--Oxalis. All taste fresh and sour, and all are edible, although the Rumex varieties are the only ones generally used in cooking. French sorrel is a hardy perennial that sends up its blade-shaped light green leaves in early spring. Like its pestiferous cousin, dock, it is a chore to dig up once established and it lives for years, so choose its spot carefully. Oxalis plants are the various ground-covering creepers with clover-like leaves and delicate flowers, usually white but sometimes yellow. I like to grab a few leaves while hiking. Their bright taste is as good as a rest stop, almost.

A good introduction to cooking with sorrel is Green Soup, which has so many versions it is more a technique than a recipe. Serious locavores and vegans can easily adapt this recipe to their needs (skip the nutmeg, use soy milk, etc.). Coconut milk might be a tasty variation, moving toward a Southeast Asian flavor combo.

3 tablespoons butter
half a medium onion, chopped
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
1 quart chicken stock
salt and pepper
2 cups fresh sorrel leaves or a combination of tender greens
2 tablespoons dry sherry (optional)
1/2 cup light cream
freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
chopped parsley
chopped chives

Melt butter in a heavy saucepan and cook onion until soft but not brown.

Add potatoes and cover with stock. Season with salt and pepper and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

Pour a cup of soup and a handful of greens into the blender and purée at high speed. Repeat until all the soup and greens are blended. The mixture should be a nice fresh green.

Return mixture to saucepan, add sherry (if used) and reheat. Add a little more stock or water if the soup is very thick. Stir in cream, heat, and correct seasoning.

Add several grinds of fresh nutmeg (if used). Serve hot, garnished with parsley and chives.

Serves 6.

People who only use rhubarb for pies are missing out. Just as a squeeze of lemon improves just about any seafood, a simple rhubarb sauce is a great foil for fish. It’s also a beautiful garden plant. I don’t know if I’ve ever actually bought any at the store. As with zucchini, there always seems to be a neighborhood surplus.

2 cups rhubarb, chopped
1/3 cup tomato paste
3 tablespoons olive oil
sugar to taste (from none to 3 tablespoons)
1/2 cup water

Put these together in a medium saucepan, bring to a low boil, and then reduce to simmer. Cook until rhubarb is tender and serve over baked or broiled fish.

A health note
Citrus gets its sourness from citric acid. The various sorrels and rhubarb get theirs from oxalic acid. Nutritionists warn against overloading on oxalic acid because it interferes with the uptake of important dietary minerals, especially calcium. A general rule of using these plants for flavoring and treats rather than as a dietary staple will keep diners out of trouble.

Friday, April 11, 2008

A Bit of Mitigation

I spent most of the last week--Spring Break!--at my new cabin, a lot of it pacing the subfloor, stoking the woodstove, and wishing the rain would at least slow down a bit so I could work outside. When it did, I made my first attempt at a rain garden. The cabin's footprint is fairly small, and the winter runoff wasn't severe, but there were puddles in the dirt road below that I don't think needed to be there.

One side effect of new construction is that topsoil gets scraped away. What's underneath at this site is mostly sandy soil that perks like crazy, but in some sections we hit a layer of clay, where runoff from the gutter slides across like grease on a skillet and heads downhill.

So I leveled out a section on the slope, piling up the clayey soil into a berm on the lower rim. Then I hauled in buckets of topsoil from the miniature mountain left by the backhoe. I would definitely have hauled this lovely fluffy dirt by the cartload instead of the bucket had one wheel not blown out early into the operation. After that, my routine was four trips with the five-gallon bucket, followed by a stroll through the nearby woods, admiring whatever trilliums the deer hadn't eaten and gathering nettles for the compost pile, while my bucket-carrying arm and shoveling elbow took a break. You can see the difference between the hauled-in topsoil and the subsoil in the photo.

Once I had about a foot of topsoil, I planted a red osier dogwood, some yellow-eyed and blue-eyed grass (which are actually tiny irises despite the common name), and a fringeflower. All are moisture-loving Northwest natives.

The runoff from the roof already had a clear path down the hill, so all I had to do then was to wait for the next spate of rain. I didn't have to wait long. It began to sprinkle, then to pour, and a rivulet headed down the hill to the new dark patch of level ground. To my delight it stopped there, spread into a shallow puddle and then soaked in within the hour. I could see no sign of any runoff moving on toward the road.

If the deer spare these first plantings, I'll add some more. If not, I can either fence in the spot or simply wait for the elderberry to colonize it.

Other "greenish" features of the cabin project
  • Low-flush toilet and pretty green enamel kitchen sink bought used from the RE Store.
  • Ceramic tile for splash guard from RE Store.
  • On-demand water heater
  • Reconditioned kitchen range from Appliance Depot
  • PaperStone kitchen counters made in Hoquiam from pulp mill waste. We got an odd-lot directly from the factory, bringing the cost for this small kitchen down to manageable.
  • Floors and window trim from trees that had to come down to clear the building site, milled on site
  • Most of the wood waste chipped and used for mulch

Made from Scratch

Maybe 25 years ago I made a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie that was an edible diary of a homestead year.

We had grown the pumpkin. The eggs were from chickens we had raised from day-old chicks.

The milk, whipping cream and butter all were provided by “Mom,” our occasionally testy Hereford/Holstein family cow.

The shortening in the crust was lard from one of our home-raised hogs, rendered on our cookstove. The stove was fueled by firewood we had cut, split and hauled. (Wild cherry is my personal favorite for firewood. It's scent is intoxicating, the bark is beautiful, it's easy to split and it burns hot.)

I did buy the flour, sugar, spices and vanilla.

As the pie was being passed around after dinner at my in-laws, I recounted the provenance of each ingredient, possibly in more than adequate detail. When I volunteered to bring a potluck dish, I went all out.

My mother-in-law, a tiny, regal woman, widened her huge brown eyes, tapped the ash from her ever-present Carlton, and said in the Alabama accent she had tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to extinguish, “Oh mah Gawd….Why?”

Looking back, that does seem to be a reasonable question. It was a very tasty pie. Thanks to the lard, I even achieved—rare for me—a light flaky crust. But that’s a lot of work for one night’s dessert. When I hear about “the real cost of food” I think about that pie, and many other dishes from the farm.

The planting and weeding, the feeding and milking, including the times that Mom’s Hereford genetics won out and she landed a kick either into the milking pail or onto my shin.

Bucking bales in June for the hay that helped keep her in milk come November.

The fence mending. The time I was bending over to reinforce the base of the chicken pen and hit the electric fence with my forehead. I had a vivid image of a decorated Christmas tree on that hot August afternoon, before coming to on my back in the manure-churned path to the milking parlor.

The distinctive stink of baby chicks, and the determination of every raccoon and hawk in the neighborhood to eat them. Reaching in to a nest box at night and finding a possum already in there, gorged with eggs and hissing. I really don’t like possums. All the moral musings that accompany raising a smart, soulful animal like a pig and then arranging its death.

The endless tides of dirt tracked into the house, and the compost, chicken scraps, woodstove ash to be everlastingly hauled out. Hauling buckets of water to the barn when the pipes froze. Cows drink a lot.

It’s hard to explain to someone not inclined toward that kind of life why Bruce and I chose to live it for as long as we did. On the other hand, thousands of people yearn to have the chance to live off the land. We were lucky, and we knew it.

A couple of farm recipes

Romeo Conca’s Pork Chops and Kale

Romeo was a chemist, founder of Lost Mountain Winery, and a sensational cook. He let me include this recipe in Winter Harvest. Having home-raised frost-sweetened kale and pork from a hog that was properly fed and cared for takes this dish from really good to sublime.

1 pork chop per diner
Dry mustard
Black pepper
Olive oil
Garlic, chopped. 1 medium clove for every two chops
Dust one side of each chop lightly with dry mustard and grind on some pepper.

Coat the bottom of a heavy skillet with olive oil and heat to the smoking point. Salt the spiced side of the chops and cook, seasoned side down, until lightly browned. Salt top sides and turn.

Reduce heat to medium low and cook until chops feel firm to the touch. Sprinkle in garlic and add as much kale as will fit in the pan. You can really cram it in. Drizzle in a little more olive oil and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Lower heat to simmer and cook until kale is limp. Cooking time will vary with the maturity of the kale.

I’ve only made Romeo’s recipe once or twice since leaving the farm and I’m leery of store bought meat for a variety of reasons. When we ate meat from animals we raised ourselves, I felt gratitude and some pride in taking responsibility for our own nourishment. When I don’t know how or where an animal lived and died I am more likely to feel guilt and apprehension.

So here’s a vegetarian favorite, whose main ingredients could easily be grown in a city garden. It’s from my friend and Columbia neighbor, Kristen Barber, who let me use it in Winter Harvest.

3 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 or 4 carrots, grated
4 large beets, peeled and grated
One 15 ounce can tomatoes, roughly chopped, with liquid
4 cups vegetable stock or water
½ cup ketchup
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon fresh dill or 1 teaspoon dried
Sour cream or yogurt for garnish (optional)
Heat oil in a big soup kettle. Add onion and sauté until soft. Add carrots and beets and sauté another five minutes. Add tomatoes, stock or water, ketchup, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower to simmer and cook, covered, until vegetables are tender, about 40 minutes. Stir in lemon juice and serve hot, sprinkled with dill and garnished, if you like, with yogurt or sour cream.

The ketchup sounded weird to me when I first saw this recipe, but I checked out some traditional Russian ones and they called for a combination of tomato puree, sugar and vinegar that basically adds up to ketchup anyway.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

That Irresistible Urge

This time of year I look avidly at every garden I walk or bicycle past, wondering about the depth of topsoil, the variety of lettuce, the prospects for that garlic. Right now, since it’s dark and I can’t do that, I’m kibbitzing gardens from centuries past. I completely empathize with Rebecca Ebey, one of the first white settlers on Whidbey Island, who wrote in her diary on Jan. 17, 1853: “Another beautiful day has dawned upon us. It is so warm and clear that I
begin to feel like gardening though it is too soon for some vegetables.” How many times have I taken the lure of that premature late-January warmth and sacrificed some tender seeds and starts? (Actually, this year the greens I started during the February warm spell were far enough along to weather the freezes and snows of March, so I look smart instead of overeager.)

I’m trying to be frugal with my seed purchases this year. I made a list--it’s always a long list--of what I wanted from the Territorial Catalog, and then I forced myself to walk around the yard and the alley and remind myself how little space, especially sunny space, I actually have. I never sent the order. Then I rather spoiled my disciplined pose by spending $10.99 on a single bleeding-heart (Dicentra) plant at the Co-op, because the golden foliage would glow in the shade outside my dining-room window. I am vowing that all the rest of my bleeding hearts will be the natives that proliferate madly out in Sumas.

For serious frugality I can go back to Rebecca Ebey, of whom a neighbor wrote:

She had just half a cupful of seed corn which she had brought with her. This was very precious as nowhere could any be obtained out here. While she was digging the ground her old rooster sneaked up behind her and gobbled up the corn. When she saw what had happened, without any hesitation, she killed the rooster, recovered the corn from his crop and planted her garden.
Too bad we can’t perform similar surgery when the slugs beat us to the early lettuce.

The Ebey quotes are from The Way We Ate, by Jacqueline B. Williams, referenced in the list at right.