Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Coolness of Cauliflower, the Charm of Chard

photos are from Growing Whatcom's winter produce list

When my mom took Home Ec in the Great Depression, Lincoln High School couldn’t afford much in the way of ingredients for cooking classes. She remembered making shirred eggs, over and over.  A little margarine to line the custard cup, an egg, a splash of milk, salt and pepper---bake and done. However she learned to be a cook legendary among our friends, that wasn’t it. 

Thinking back to my own Home Ec classes in the 1960s, it’s probably telling that I cannot recall a single thing we cooked, although I’m pretty sure Jello was involved. I can remember meals going back to early childhood, but that class at Sumner High with Mrs. Boushay, who was very nice, is a culinary blank spot. (Recalling the madras miniskirt suit I made in the sewing unit is another matter. I was not born to match seams in plaid.)

I’m pretty sure that the students taking Lois Rienstra’s cooking classes at the high school where I teach will remember what they ate. The other day Bobbi Sue came to my English class bubbling about the dish she and her cooking partner had made that was “pure awesomeness.”  When I asked her about it, she zipped back down the hall and brought me some, and she was right. Bobbi Sue is not one of your teenage vegan greenie types, nor does she think a whole lot of things in life are awesome, but the recipe that made us both happy featured cauliflower, chard and potatoes, fresh from the Growing Whatcom CSA. 

Obviously, things are changing in high school kitchens. Lois has put a portion of her program’s buying power into local food this year, which is particularly appropriate at our rural school since many of the students are from farming and farm-working families. Some of her young cooks spend summers and vacations growing the very vegetables that they are learning to cook with imagination and respect. It’s good to see those transformations—fieldworkers into chefs, a kid’s response to Swiss chard going from “gross!” to “awesomeness!”   Lois’s catering class takes the local food message back out into the community by including CSA produce in their monthly Lions Club dinners and other commercial jobs. 

Growing Washington has recently added a Winter CSA, extending the season another 8 weeks into late December. This is good news for me, because the catering class has agreed to make food from Winter Harvest for our Literature Live night at Village Books, Dec. 8. I hope that any local readers will stop by to say hi, have a snack,  and see what good work they do. 

I am also excited to start getting my own winter CSA box from Osprey Hill Farm in Acme, starting next weekend.
Both programs have information online:

And here’s the recipe for Bobbi Sue’s “pure awesomeness,” courtesy of Growing Whatcom CSA:
Cauliflower, Chard and Leek Gratin
1 medium head of cauliflower, florets only
1 bunch of chard, cleaned, stem removed and chopped
1 leek, white and light green parts only, washed well and chopped
¼ cup chopped shallot
1 T olive oil
2T butter
2T flour
¼ cup cream
1¾ cup 2 percent milk
1 cup grated Grana Padano cheese (optional)
 ½ cup grated Parmesan
salt and pepper to taste

Steam the cauliflower until tender crisp, about 10 minutes. Set aside. Heat the olive oil in a large pan, sauté the leek and shallot for a few minutes until just starting to turn golden. Add the chard and sauté until just wilted. Mix with the cauliflower in a roasting pan.

Make the béchamel. Start by melting the butter in a sauce pan. Add the flour and whisk until it begins to turn golden and smells “nutty” and no longer like raw flour. Add the cream and milk slowly, whisking as you go to keep it smooth. Add the nutmeg. Whisk over low heat until it thickens. Add the Grana Padano cheese and whisk until melted and smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the sauce evenly over the cauliflower mixture. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese. Bake at 350 F for about 15-20 minutes until the top turns golden and is heated through.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sweet Potato Report

Probably I couldn’t have picked a less promising summer for my first try at Pacific Northwest sweet potatoes.  

I bought five slips from Territorial Seeds, rooted them in water, waited in vain for that burst of June warm weather to get them started in dirt, and finally had to put them in their container ready or not, because I was about to leave for Romania. When I got back in mid-July, three of the babies had given up the ghost, presumably discouraged by the endless chilly rain. The last two hung on, and I wheeled them around the deck like invalids on a cruise ship, following the fickle sun. 

They sat, and sat, and sat, neither growing nor dying, until August when they finally perked up during our brief heat wave and put on a little growth. Then they sat some more. A week ago I upended the pot and harvest about a dozen hairy little roots. Little is the operative word. The entire “crop” probably came in at under a pound. 

I roasted them along with some romano beans that weren’t going to make it to the shell stage but were getting too stringy to sauté. The flavor was excellent, actually--not as sweet as the garnet yams I get at the Co-op, but rich and fresh. I realized I’ve never knowingly eaten fresh sweet potatoes. Unless our forecast is for another non-summer, I’ll try them again next year.

Another semi-casualty of a cool summer in my shady yard was my kabocha squash. It actually produced four fruits on the one vine, which impressed me, but each one was the size of a medium cantaloupe, about half the usual girth. 

Oh well.  In a couple of weeks my winter CSA will start from Osprey Hill Farm, and while I doubt it will include sweet potatoes, I’ll bet I will have all the squash I could want.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Spiced Lentils and Collard Greens

Another recipe from Winter Harvest:  I have a lot of collards this year, and I've been using them in all sorts of ways. This one is an East African combination familiar to fans of Ethiopian restaurants. The blend of strongly flavored greens, mellow lentils and hot spices makes a feast out of plain materials, and a dab of yogurt or cottage cheese adds a cool counterpoint, rather like the Indian curry/raita pairing. Despite their association with tropical cuisines, hot peppers are more reliable producers in cool summers than are most sweet varieties. Their smaller size and thinner flesh require less sun and heat to develop. My friend Mary Jean preserves her hot peppers from the garden by removing the seeds and freezing them on trays. They stay in freezer bags until needed for cooked recipes and they retain their fresh taste although not their crisp texture.

2 tablespoons canola oil, butter, or niter kibbeh (an Ethiopian spiced butter)
1 medium onion, chopped fine
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger root
4 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 fresh or frozen hot green chilies
1 cup lentils, rinsed and drained
2 cups water
½ pound trimmed collard greens, shredded or chopped (about 3 cups)
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon salt
black pepper

Heat oil or butter in a large heavy saucepan or skillet. Sauté onion, ginger, garlic, and chilies over medium heat until the vegetables soften, maybe 5 minutes. Add lentils, water, and collards. Bring to a simmer, and then cook over low to moderate heat, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes. Lentils should be tender but not dissolved into mush and the whole mixture should be more like porridge than soup. Stir in cardamom, salt and pepper. Add hot sauce or sprinkle with cayenne if you like it hotter.
Pass yogurt on the side.
Vegetarian, gluten-free

To check out a collards discussion by folks who really care, eg, Southerners, go to  

The new Winter Harvest should be off the press next week! At that point in a book project, when it's too late to make changes, anticipation always turns to fear that some glitch got through that will frustrate any cooks who use it.  But right now I'm very excited to see it between covers. New Society has done a beautiful job with the design, and Celeste Henriquez's vegetable drawings are exquisite. I'm really glad they will be getting another viewing.

Friday, October 8, 2010


For years, actually decades, I’ve grown arugula, loved it in salads and sandwiches when it was young and zippy, then felt bad and yanked it when it inevitably and quickly got big and too hot for comfort. For some reason it never occurred to me to try cooking it. 

Arugula, by Celeste Henriquez, from Winter Harvest Cookbook
But now I have, and of course a bit of checking online makes me realize that many have gotten there before me. It’s good stuff. Cooking takes away the extra bite, so it goes back to being a strongly flavored green with a pleasant note of sesame, somewhat similar to cooked nettles. Last night I pulled some arugulas that were crowding out the winter lettuce and braised them in a splash of water and olive oil. I roasted a head of cauliflower (in florets) with some Cajun spice mixture and garlic cloves; added some partially boiled potato slices (Yukon golds) to the roasting pan to get just a little crusty, and mixed the whole shebang together with a little grated Romano for a quick green, white, and yellow dinner that was the perfect transition from “long day at work” to “new songs to learn at chorus rehearsal.” There was just a bite left this morning, and it tasted fine cold, too.
I found a number of intriguing arugula recipes at Mariquita Farm’s website: and next I figure to take their version of Arugula Vichyssoise and make it into a hot potato/leek/arugula soup. Mariquita (Spanish for ladybug) is in Watsonville, California, where vichyssoise in October makes perfect sense. Here the rain is pelting down and it’s dark before dinnertime, so I want something warmer.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Apple Applesauce Pie, Oh My

The new Winter Harvest will be in stores in a few weeks, which means I'll be doing some promotion, which means it's time to reacquaint myself with some of the recipes I haven't made in awhile, and with the whole idea of following recipes faithfully. Once the manuscript went to the publisher, I mostly went back to my casual approach to measurements and cooking times. That works fine for real life, but less so for food demonstrations when I want to be able to assure people that if they follow the same procedure, they will get similar results. 

So tonight I made an old favorite from the book, Apple Applesauce Pie, and it was reassuringly good. I used Tsugaru apples from Bellewood Acres, the last of last year's applesauce from Sumas apples, Breckenridge Farms milk and butter, an Organic Valley egg, and Grace Harbor Farms Guernsey yogurt, which gets my vote for the world's best. Tsugarus are maybe not the ideal pie apple as they are very crisp and resist softening up much during cooking, but they taste just great. 

Here's the recipe, from the book: 
One day I set out to make Mrs. Anderson’s Sour Cream Apple Pie (the recipe is in Lila Gault’s Northwest Cookbook and it’s great) and found I didn’t have any sour cream. The following improvisation is a bit easier on the arteries, and it got raves. I hate making pie crust so I use a pat-in-the-pan kuchen pastry whenever possible.

1 3/4 cups unbleached flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1/3 cup butter

Sift flour, baking powder, and sugar into a bowl. Add shortening, cut into small pieces, and blend with a fork or your fingers until it resembles coarse cornmeal. Press mixture into a pie pan and bake 10 minutes at 400°F. Remove from oven and cool before filling.

2 1/2 to 3 cups apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened yogurt
1/2 cup applesauce
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 375°F. Place apples in pie shell. Combine flour, salt, and sugar in a medium bowl. Add yogurt, applesauce, egg, and vanilla and mix well. Pour over apples and bake for about 30 minutes or until mixture has set.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Yam Cake--Why??

Several weeks ago I stopped on the way home from Trout Lake to hear my friend Karen Shivers sing jazz and—not incidentally—to eat great sushi at Hiroshi’s on Lake Union.  Along with the sublime house rolls I decided to try konnyaku, “yam cakes” with miso sauce. 

What I imagined was a sort of vegetable version of Japanese fish cakes, which I’ve always liked, right down to their dayglo dye jobs. They are about as processed as a McDonald’s chicken nugget, and I rarely eat them anymore, but I have happy memories of chomping them down in one-pot meals at Tonkatsu in Seattle’s International District, several decades ago. 

At Hiroshi’s yam cakes were on the separate menu slip more oriented to the Japanese catering side of their business. The server warned me that non-Japanese don’t usually like it because of the texture, which she described as “hard jelly,” and that did give me pause, but I ordered anyway and promised not to complain.  I was glad for the warning because “hard jelly” was the perfect description of these dark brown, basically tasteless cubes, coated in a really good spicy miso sauce that redeemed the experience. 

Later I asked a friend whose mom is Japanese and she began to reminisce happily about yam cake in soup, yam cake in stews, so I do know at least one person who appreciates its subtle qualities. 

I did a bit of research and learned that they are made not from sweet-potatoes themselves but from the starch of a relative called devil’s root, so they bear about the same relation to actual sweet potatoes the way I love them--roasted with garlic--as potato starch does to a perfect fingerling. As in, no taste: The point is the texture, and its ability to carry other flavors. This puts in it in the category of aspic (hate it!), tofu (best after a stretch in a pungent marinade), factory-farmed chicken breasts (a waste of cholesterol), and a Chinese specialty, dried jellyfish, that underwhelmed me the only time I tried it. 

 (By the way, the white meat of pasture-raised chickens actually has an identifiable flavor, something most of us have not experienced and that therefore caused a good deal of comment this summer as we ate our way through many, many examples in Romania.)
That got me wondering about the point of such food. With tofu, one could make the case that the protein is the point, so it’s just a matter of finding ways to make it palatable. But with devil’s tongue  and jellyfish, there is no such justification and there’s a fair amount of labor involved in creating it. So many cultures have examples of basically tasteless traditional favorites—lutefisk!!--that it must go beyond nutrition.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten—no compelling theories have come to mind.

"Good Food" focuses on local farms

When we first moved to Whatcom County, began homesteading, and got involved in Tilth, I had a conversation with Gretchen Hoyt of Alm Hill Gardens that I still remember 30 years later. Although I grew up in the country around gardens and animals, I knew basically nothing about farming, except that the migrant workers I met as a camp liaison for a summer education program (my summer job after freshman and sophomore years in college) were living in third world conditions in the Puyallup Valley.  

(It’s interesting in another light that at the time, the late 1960s, the workers in the camps I visited were First Nations people from a reserve on Vancouver Island. Their annual migration to pick berries and beans outside of Sumner was a continuation of the seasonal cycle of food gathering their tribe had followed, probably for millennia. Of course the significant difference was that instead of putting by their own stores for food and trade, they were now living in squalor while they harvested a product for someone else’s profit.)

What Gretchen said was how many skills you needed to be a successful farmer or farm worker, especially on a diversified small farm. She said if farming rewarded according to the knowledge and  management abilities it took to do it well, fieldworkers would be paid like lawyers. [Gretchen, if you ever read this—I’m sure those aren’t your exact words; it’s the gist that stayed with me]

I thought of that when talking with Gretchen and Ben’s son, Joshua Craft, this summer at the Bellingham Farmers Market. Josh is farming on his own now, at Nooksack Nine Fruits and Veggies. When I saw him in mid-June, and not a sunny June as we may remember, he already had glorious ripe heirloom tomatoes. Well, actually he didn’t have them, because he had just sold the last one, at $5 a pound.  In order to produce flavorful ripe tomatoes in a rainy Northwestern Washington spring, Josh had rigged up a wood-fired furnace and piped the water it heated under the soil of his greenhouse so he could plant tomatoes in January. By the time the little plants were up and in need of light, the days were getting long enough to provide it, with the actual heat still coming from below. That’s just one example of the skills he uses to grow market vegetables and find a way to make them profitable. 

I thought of it again last night when I watched “Good Food,” a documentary about sustainable agriculture in the Pacific Northwest, mostly Washington state. Made by Bullfrog Films and featuring, along with a lot of gorgeous scenery, David Suzuki, Mark Musick of Tilth, Ben and Gretchen at Alm Hill Gardens, The Bellingham Farmers Market, Mallard Ice Cream, Rio Thomas (founder of the Small Potatoes gleaning project), Anne Schwartz of Blue Heron Farm near Rockport, and many more, it is that rare thing, a feel-good movie about our food system. 

In the movie Ben and Gretchen talk again about the mismatch between the service farm workers provide for us and the pay and respect they get. Ben says that growing and harvesting the food we depend on is the most necessary job there is, and deserves to be seen as such. “We pay our workers better than Walmart,” said Ben, discussing his and Gretchen’s priorities as business owners.  “That’s not saying much,” Gretchen responded. (Of course Ben and Gretchen themselves don’t make anything like what Sam Walton of Walmart did. He was the second richest man in the world when he died in 1992.)

Besides better food and less dependence on ever-scarcer oil, local sustainable agriculture provides benefits that may not be as obvious outside the small communities where more farmers live. Among them are increased control and increased satisfaction for the farmers themselves, something we all want from our jobs. Billy Allstot grew up outside Tonasket on a commercial apple orchard and now grows vegetables, herbs, and flowers for direct sales to farmers markets. In the film he said that when he was an apple grower for a wholesaler, he would truck his crop to the warehouse and that was that. Except for the check, he never heard another thing. No praise or critiques, he never saw a customer bite into an apple and smile, never even knew what continent his fruit went to. Now he can get to know his customers, answer their questions, and literally stand behind his product. If tastes and trends evolve, he knows it right away and can adapt to meet them.

As a high school teacher out in the county, I see yet another benefit. Many of my students are the children of farm workers (and work the fields themselves in the summer). When I started teaching there in the mid-1990s, it was rare for a child from a fieldworking family to graduate high school. Constant moves and the frequent need to stay home to help out thinned the ranks of children who could stay in school. Rarer still was a farmworker’s child who participated in extracurricular activities, which presupposes a degree of stability and some spare time. Now it’s different. Diversified sustainable farms, are labor intensive, and the skills they require mean that workers are less interchangeable. The children of the families working at Alm Hill Gardens have some stability, they can make plans, and they don’t always have to grab every possible chance to make another dollar for their families in the short run. Those kids are taking AP classes, they are heading to college, they turn out for sports, they head after-school clubs and run for ASB

You can get the movie from the Bellingham/Whatcom County Library. 

Some links: has a very interesting interview with Anne Schwartz