Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Apple Tree Flowers

I was walking home from a neighbor's yesterday, preoccupied with making it to the bus in time to ride out to school for free (yea for Free Fare Week in Whatcom County!) when I was hailed by my lovely young neighbor Amelia. I think she's 4.

"You can eat the apple tree flowers," she told me. That confused me, since it's August. "They taste hot," she added. Then I got it. Her folks have put two young columnar apple trees in pots by the front gate. Each pot is spilling over with an exuberance of nasturtiums. Therefore: apple tree flowers. I munched a peppery blossom and thought, not for the first time, how lucky I am in my neighbors.

When I got back I saw a another piece of luck. The recent rains have gotten my new sowing of salad greens off to a strong start. Kale, leeks, and chard are all in the ground for spring. When I go back to work next week, I'll be overwhelmed as usual by the start of school, but I won't be kicking myself for not have gotten started on the overwintered veggies.

And I made the bus with a minute to spare.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Grown in Columbia (Neighborhood)

Romenesco broccoli, aka Pyramidenblumenkohl, among many other names. It tastes like a cross between broccoli and cauliflower. It looks like something Harry Potter would study in herbology.
I've learned from cookalmostanything.blogspot.com, whose author also took this picture, that it is a mathematician's dream, being both a demonstration of the Fibonacci number sequence and a fractal, made up of ever-smaller repeating copies of the same shape.

We had a Grown in Columbia table at the neighborhood association potluck this week. Although our egg and honey crops were not represented, gardeners rose to the challenge. We had rhubarb crumble, Mennonite plum “platz” pastries, several takes on potato salad, a beautiful and delicious roasted beet salad on a bed of arugula, and a combination of Romanesco broccoli, chard, and other greens that was tantalizing both to see and to eat.
The dishes incorporated edible pod peas, wax beans, nasturtiums, shallots, and purple carrots.

Our cool spring and early summer was represented in the lack of tomatoes and summer squash. Usually by August, a call for food bank donations would be met by piles of zukes, and gardeners would be eager to show off the first cherry and plum tomatoes of the season. We got just one small bag of golden zucchini. I did eat my own first ripe tomato yesterday; it was about the size of a garbanzo bean and it tasted just wonderful. It was the outlier that often shows up weeks ahead of anything else on a tomato plant, so I won’t be making a Caprese salad anytime soon.

The bush wax beans are in full swing, but I can’t say I’m loving the taste enough to grow them again. Usually I grow romanos, and maybe that rich flavor is spoiling me for the subtleties of the wax variety. They are surely pretty though. Tomatillos and cucumbers are flowering, the poor stunted little zucchini plants are starting to produce, and my artichokes are abundant enough for kitchen experiments (to be reported later).

The latest garden project is to find the patches where I can plant seed for fall and winter greens. Last year I waited too long, and the days were too short too soon to give those salads a decent start. This year I hope time things better. If we up the ante and have a Grown in Columbia table at the February meeting, I want to be ready.

For a good basic primer on winter and early spring harvesting, which means planting right now, check out http://www.seedsofchange.com/enewsletter/issue_51/extend_season.asp

For the full local picture and a chance to thank Binda Colebrook for the decades she has spent making Whatcom County more fruitful and beautiful, get yourself a copy of Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

From the Archives: Huck Finn--Food Critic

I'm rereading Huckleberry Finn along with my AP students, who have it as a summer assignment. Every time I read it I see more layers of social satire, more transcendent description of the natural world, and generally more genius all around. All that and one of my favorite food quotes, too.

"The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time. When you got to the table you couldn't go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn't really anything the matter with them--that is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better."

One thing that felt unfamiliar about Romanian food this summer, as I'm so used to my own cooking, was its compartmentalization. Except for the soups, ingredients tended to be separated out: a chunk of meat, a pile of potatoes, a mound of cabbage. It was good, but I'm with Huck, things go better when the juice swaps around.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Getting Technical

The more I read about local diets and foodshed eating, the more I wonder how to evaluate the wildly varying claims about food miles, carbon costs, etc. It seems obvious that some long-distance provender is less damaging in environmental terms than others, but it gets bewildering to try to figure it out, especially when you are standing in the grocery aisle looking longingly at a gleaming pile of limes. The trendier local eating becomes, the more alluring the advertising we see from transnational giants pretending to be mom-and-pop neighbors

Actually, that's one appeal of an arbitrary boundary like the 100 Mile Diet. Once you've set your parameters you can stop thinking about those individual decisions and exceptions and concentrate on enjoying the food that is available to you. Sort of like when you decide to settle down with one person and make it work.

But what I started out wanting to say was...I found a site that explains in detail the technical justification for its claims on environmental impact of a big variety of foods. It also has a tweaky but very interesting interactive map for local food producers in Lower British Columbia and Northwest Washington. I love this melding of high tech and local knowledge. Check it out.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Just a recipe: baby bok choy

A friend sent me this. I made it and can confirm it's delicious, and so easy, and she gave me permission to pass it on:

Choose very small, tender baby bok choy. Slice them in two lengthwise and place them in a flat casserole, cut side down.

Over them sprinkle a lot of finely chopped garlic, some olive oil, a bit of toasted sesame oil, grated fresh ginger, a splash of soy sauce and a shallow amount of good chicken stock.

Cover and roast in a 400 degree oven for about a half hour, uncovering for the last five to ten minutes. (Save any remaining stock/juices)

(I saw a somewhat similar recipe that called for a handful of roasted cashews to sprinkle on at the end. I think I'll try that next time.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What does an environmentalist look like?

Gene Pool, New York City's "Can Man." He also has an outfit of plastic bottles and cutlery. His fashion mission is to make us aware of our wasteful way of living.

A couple of weeks ago at the Farmers Market I walked by a leafleteer. I don’t know what group, but the heading said something like, “You can’t eat meat and be an environmentalist.”

I didn’t take one, so I don’t know the context, but it did get me thinking. My first thought was, gee, Wendell Berry isn’t an environmentalist? Or Barbara Kingsolver?

Subsistence hunters and fishers can’t be environmentalists? Tibetans herders living above the tree line can’t be environmentalists? Surely their carbon footprint is a whole lot smaller than mine no matter how much more meat they eat.

Is environmentalism about a particular set of “don’ts,” or about our use of resources? If I get my protein from a giant soybean farm, is that more environmentally responsible than getting it from a calf I raised in the back pasture, whose manure nourished our garden and whose mama gave milk for our family and friends? Well, ok, I don’t do that anymore, and homesteading is not an option for most people, but what about the grass-fed beef I pay extra for once every month or two?

For me those aren’t rhetorical questions. And maybe the leafleteer is right. I just read a piece in Discover Magazine that surely falls into the “no good deed goes unpunished” category. It turns out that grass-fed cattle (and, I suppose, bison) emit more methane per belch than their feedlot counterparts. Cows and other cud chewers belch a lot, and methane is a potent greenhouse gas, so this is not just a random factoid. Evidently the reason is that grass has more fiber than grain and the other less savory stuff that goes into feedlot mixtures, so the digestive process produces more gas.

But wait! Scientists have come up with a solution. You guessed it; they found a way to genetically modify grass to make it more digestible to bovine stomachs. Stay tuned, no doubt, for a later issue of Discover, where we will find out the unintended consequences of that bit of tinkering.

I’m assuming, perhaps mistakenly, that the leafleteer was promoting veganism. If you are a less restrictive vegetarian, presumably you have to come to terms with the idea that meat eating is an intrinsic link in the chain that brings us eggs and dairy products, and wool for that matter. Those chickens, no matter how happy their free-range lives, will eventually get too old to lay. Cows and goats need to give birth to produce milk, and something has to be done with those calves and kids eventually. There could be a lot less of it, it could be produced much more responsibly, the animals could be treated as fellow beings instead of pricing units, but there still will be chicken stew, ground beef, and mutton somewhere along the line. The individual choices of millions of vegetarians can help push these practices in a healthier direction, but only a complete avoidance of animal products would make them go away.

So then I wonder what the theorists behind that pamphlet have planned for the Northwest Washington acreage now devoted to dairy, for example, and what surprises the law of unintended consequences would have for us if we followed our environmentalism to that particular logical conclusion.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Two more quotes

As I was cooking dinner the other night, my housemate, who studies the occult, said he thought that cooking was the original magic, the first casting of spells.

That made me think of this quote.

“Other creatures receive food simply as fodder. But we take the raw materials of the earth and work with them--touch them, manipulate them, taste them, glory in their heady smells and colors, and then, through a bit of alchemy, transform them into delicious creations. Cooking demands attention, patience, and above all, respect. It is a way of worship, a way of giving thanks.”
Judith Jones, The Tenth Muse

And here's another one I like

"If you take away from food the wholeness of growing it or take away the joy and conviviality of preparing it in your own home, then I believe you are talking about a whole new definition of a human being."

Wendell Berry, Unsettling of America

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Locavore locales

Australian Cheesefruit: the taste is described as a combination of blue cheese and pineapple.
Photo by Ian Sutton

I started out this morning thinking about what to get at the Farmers Market today, and the next thing I knew I was wondering what locavore would look like somewhere far, far away.
So herewith, a menu from a catering company that features native Australian foods:

Cheesefruit & Timboon goats cheese tart, Roma tomato and River Mint salsa

Crocodile and corn Nori parcel tempura, hot sour broth, Asian greens

Marinated emu carpaccio, Wasabi baby English spinach timbale, Rice wine / sesame oil and vinegar dressing

Seared Coffin Bay scallops, braised leeks, Lemon Myrtle Miso Beurre blanc
Enoki mushrooms wrapped in Wallaby fillet, baked Shitake mushrooms, oyster sauce

Char grilled fillet of kangaroo, grilled pear & prosciutto, potato gallette, Coral lettuce, Munthari berry & aged balsamic vinegar dressing

Baked spring lamb loin coated with wattle seed and macadamia nuts wrapped in paperbark, Akudjara and chilli sauce

Twice cooked duck, steamed baby bokchoy, Rozella bud compote, ginger flavoured duck broth

Grilled Barramundi fillet, cucumber, sugar peas & Nashi apple, rocket salad, Tanami Desert lime with saffron jus

Roasted eye fillet of steak, celeriac & basil puree, wild Tasmanian pepperberry jus, Coles Bay oysters and celeriac disc

Wattleseed crème brulee, Blueberry passionfruit and pineapple salad

Duo of Aniseed myrtle and mango ice cream, Mango and absolute puree

Wild Ruby finger lime curd tart, caramelised quandongs, citrus coulis

Bitter chocolate fudge cake, poached ryberry and rhubarb, crème fraiche

Selection of Australian cheeses and fresh fruit

Coffee with Candlenut biscotti and native cinnamon shortbreads

I'm really intrigued by caramelised quandongs; the name is so much fun that I'm not sure I even want to know what they are. What I actually had for dinner last night was Bellingham local to the max. Households in our neighborhood gather on Friday afternoons for a garden share and swap in a nearby alley. I took home a handful of mixed greens and half a dozen eggs, plus a bouquet. I got another handful of greens from my own garden, boiled up some pasta, and stirred in the rough chopped greens, one of the eggs and--I admit--a sprinkling of parmesan. Dinner! It tasted great.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Two quotes

Two patches of former lawn. Now the back is jungle and the front is pretty bare, but I'm happily working toward that happy medium. Plus, I have artichokes, chard, blueberries, and more, along with the flowers.
Here are two quotes I've run across recently:
"Life is animated water."
Wendy Johnson, Gardening at the Dragon's Gate

"Lawns are nature purged of sex and death. No wonder Americans like them so much."
Michael Pollan, "Why Mow"

The first one reminds me of one of my favorites lines from a favorite obscure book, The Family Cow, by Dirk Van Loon. If you ever find yourself with a personal milk cow, this is the book you want. In the meantime, this wisdom, possibly slightly misquoted from memory: "A cow is nature's way of moving water from one place to another." Anyone who has hauled water for cows, or mucked out a barn, knows whereof he speaks.

The second was quoted in a New Yorker (July 21, 08) review of books on the history and culture of suburban lawns. (This is also the issue with the notorious Barack and Michelle Obama cover illustration.) Reading through the article, I came to think that Pollan's quote is actually less true than it should be. Pollan was referring to the fact that mowing keeps lawn grass in a perpetual state of immaturity. It is never allowed to flower, set seed, and die. What dies instead, all too often, is the other life in and around the grass. Herbicides, pesticides, over-fertilization, and the massive quantities of water diverted from more essential uses to keep lawns green--all these add up to death, if not sex, on a massive scale.

Even more than the environmental checklist, however, I was struck by the cultural assumptions that have built up around lawns. A couple more quotes give the flavor: "A fine carpet of green grass stamps the inhabitants as good neighbors, as desirable citizens," wrote the founder of Levittown, one of the first suburban developments.

"The appearance of a lawn bespeaks the personal values of the resident. Some feel that a person who keeps the lawn perfectly clipped is a person who can be trusted."
The Lawn Institute

So what does my lawn say about my personal values?

Since my front yard and side yards are too bumpy with tree roots for an attractive lawn anyway, the decision to dig them up was easy, and my neighborhood--unlike many--is more than tolerant about that kind of thing. If neighbors think my blueberry bushes, peach tree, artemisia, euphorbias, lavender, creeping thyme, and pots of chard are signs of my untrustworthy nature, they haven't said so. Although antilawn enthusiasts often gloss over this aspect, it is way more work than grass would be. Perhaps that will change when it is better established--this is only the second year for most of it, and I am still rehabbing the soil as well as finding cheap plants--but I have my doubts.

In the back I still have a patch of lawn. It gets watered when my grandbaby is there playing with the hose. It gets mowed with a non-power mower every week or two. It is big enough for a table and chairs, plus room to lie on the grass and read, or watch bugs navigate their own version of the urban jungle. I like it and I wouldn't want to give it up.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Home grounds

Another way to transform coffee grounds:

'Bumble Bee', 1997, acrylic paint-charcoal and coffee grinds on canvas. Copyright Elisabetha Vanderheide; contact artist for commercial use:

Though my students, and fellow teachers in our coffee club, may find this hard to credit, during the summer I only drink a cup a day. I guess that's one difference between getting up at 5 a.m. and spending the day with teenagers and getting up when the spirit moves and spending the day with plants.

Part of the morning caffeine ritual is the tossing of the grounds. I amble out to the front yard and decide which of the acid loving bushes gets the largess today. Usually it's a blueberry, but I also have a rugosa rose out there, some azaleas, and native bunchberries that are spreading out to carpet the shadiest spot.

I love doing this, but I did start to wonder if I was actually accomplishing anything besides adding to my eccentric reputation among my neighbors, so I did a bit of research.

A list of Top Ten Things To Do With Coffee Grounds, suggests rubbing them on furniture scratches and strapping them to your cellulite with plastic wrap (evidently the caffeine does something magical to those little bumps, and if not, you can still smell like a Starbucks, and we all know how sexy that is.) Moving on to more complex projects, to see a pickup truck that runs on gassified coffee grounds, check out http://gas2.org/2008/05/14/a-truck-that-runs-on-coffee-grounds-and-how-wood-gas-powers-cars-with-garbage/.
You can also buy fuel logs made of compressed grounds and wax. Java-Logs are the invention of a Canadian engineer who determined that they burn hotter and cleaner than Prestologs. On a larger scale, I learned from Food and Grocery Information, Insight and Best Practice, that Nestle's in England generates steam to power its instant coffee plant by burning coffee grounds.

Back to the garden: After reading many, many lists and tips of sometimes dubious provenance, I found out that Cooperative Extension in Lane County, Oregon, is doing research that can move us from folklore to reliable information.

Cindy Wise, the coordinator for Extension's Compost Specialist program in Lane County, heads a group of Compost Specialists (a label I would love to earn) who collect more than 50 tons of grounds per year from area coffee shops. Their experiments indicate that the nitrogen-rich coffee grounds can be an effective substitute for manure in compost piles, supplying the heat that is needed to kill pathogens and quickly break down organic materials. That's been an issue for me since I moved off the farm and no longer have easy access to animal doo.

"In the trials, when coffee grounds made up 25 percent of the volume of the compost pile, temperatures were sustained between 135 degrees and 155 degrees for at least two weeks, enough time to have killed a "significant portion" of the pathogens and seeds, Wise said. In contrast, the manure in the trials didn't sustain the heat as long, she said."

I also learned that I'm probably missing the point by concentrating on the acid-loving plants. The acid in the beans goes into the coffee we drink; the grounds are pH neutral, pretty much. Furthermore, the nitrogen in the grounds is not immediately available to the plants, so it makes more sense to use the coffee to boost the compost pile and then put the compost on the garden.

I enjoy my morning ritual, though, so I may continue to put that pleasure over practicality. Maybe I'll find a nearby coffee-swilling household who will give me their grounds for the compost.

To read the full Cooperative Extension article, see http://www.extension.org/pages/Coffee+Grounds+Perk+Up+Compost+Pile+with+Nitrogen

The Community Co-op sells Java-Logs.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Watering the Roots

My front garden spent years as the otherwise unloved playground for a giant Norway maple's giant root system. Any soil I could get at by chopping through the tangle was as fluffy and incoherent as dust. Water rolled right down the slope to the sidewalk, leaving the ground as parched as before. 

This is my third summer here, and the view from the front is better, but watering is still a challenge. The maple is a glorious but greedy neighbor when it comes to other plants. I've mulched and mulched, and brought in topsoil, but the new blueberries, peach tree, vines and flowers are still outmaneuvered in the quest for moisture and nutrients. 
That may be why I responded so strongly to this passage from the aforementioned Gardening at the Dragon's Gate, by Wendy Johnson. She tells of going out to her father-in-law's garden shortly after his death, to water his plants and his memory.

"The soil was compacted dust, as if forty circus elephants had been tethered to that very spot for decades. I chipped away at the dry flanks of this abandoned garden and remembered Charlie years ago watering his riot of 'State Fair' zinnias and prize Jersey tomatoes in this very same spot.

"It took me two solid days just to loosen the soil in his garden, going a few inches down at a time, coaxing the ground to accept small tentative sips of water. Even though it is best not to cultivate soil when it is too dry or too wet, I had only this time and this ground, so I pried open a shallow seam in the dirt and watched the water trickle into the dry earth. An hour or so later, when the soil was softer and more receptive, I pried deeper with fork and hose.

"...Little by little the soil began to swell with new life, humming a slow, fat summer song."

My own dry ground ritual starts when I plant anything perennial in the front, especially on the slope. I dig out a hole behind the new plant and fill it most of the way with topsoil and compost.
I leave it a little concave. When I water, that's where it goes. The water sinks into the fertile pocket instead of rolling across the top of the ground, and the little bush gets a special delivery of moisture and food. Fanatical composter though I am, I never have enough of it to mulch everything, so this system allows me to, as Ken Kesey used to say, "put your good where it will do the most."

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A gift, a garden, some rice--risotto

A gift of morels is a gift indeed

I've had two particularly wonderful risottos in the last few weeks. Maybe because they take a bit of work, or maybe because I'm marked forever by the first authentic one I ever had, in a Milanese restaurant that was way beyond my budget some 40 years ago, I don't think of risotti as frugal food.

But really, they are yet another way that Italians have shown us how to take a bit of this and a dab of that and blend it into pleasure. Even Arborio rice doesn't cost much compared to say, a salmon steak or even slab of marinated tofu, and except for the olive oil and maybe some cheese, the rest of the dish can come from the garden.

A few weeks back my friend Rob gave me a small bag of morels, which reminded me that I already had some dried porcini, harvested from a neighbor's yard during the first rains of last fall. I got a few crimini from the Food Co-op (locally grown at Twin Sisters Farm). The rest was a handful of parsley and garlic chives from the garden, some stock from the last time I cooked a chicken (vegetable stock is fine too), a splash of white wine, and some time chatting while stirring at the stove.

The result was memorable. This may sound revolting if you are not a hardcore gardener, but to me the wild, earthy sweetness of that risotto was reminiscent of one of my all-time favorite smells (right up there with a new baby or a slightly sweaty horse), that of a well-made compost pile. Somehow it's full and sweet at the same time. It smells like life. (By the way, that almost floral smell is the best way to tell if your compost is ready.)

The other risotto was just last night. I picked one of my young artichokes--how I love saying that--and determined that this time I would treat it right. I am new to home-grown chokes, and the last one I cooked was insufficiently trimmed. I did get the choke part out, but I left too much stem and too many bitter outside leaves, so the whole dish was bitter.

This time I blanched the whole choke before trimming and dechoking it. Then I made my risotto using lots of parsley and a shallot from my garden, a bit of garlic, and the artichoke, sliced into small wedges with about two inches of the stem. I had just a smidgeon of hard-as-a-rock Parmesan. It was past grating, but I was able to hack it to little chunks with a carving knife and add it to the rice. I think the best part was the stem, a tender wand of artichoke flavor.

Three more chokes are ripening as I write, so I'm anticipating the next kitchen adventure.

The Taste of Home

Ah, oysters...

My daughter, son-in-law, and fabulous toddler grandbaby came out to the island for 4th of July to join my mom and me.
On the 5th, Laurel and I went to the island farmers market for sensational raspberry scones and then drove off-island to an oyster farm just outside of Allyn. All that were left were some small ones--not the petite and elusive native Olympias, just small. We bought two dozen.

That evening son-in-law Ronny dug a shallow fire pit by the new cabin, lined it with pea gravel since our sandy soil doesn’t provide many rocks, and we took the oven racks out of the stove to make a grill. He laid the little oysters right on the racks. As they opened over the coals from a fir and cedar fire, he shucked them and put them in a saucepan of melted butter. The oyster liquid blended with the butter and reduced to a compelling sauce, which we poured over the potatoes we had baked in foil on the same coals.

I’m not hard to please when it comes to oysters, but these were exceptional. We stopped talking as we ate them. The flavor was so intense and so wonderful that it took all our attention. Little Hailey, having the first bite of oyster in her 14 months of life, widened her big gray-blue eyes even bigger and reached for more.

That night in bed I began a book--part memoir, part manual--by Wendy Johnson, who farms at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Northern California. While talking about the seeming conflict between the Buddhist goal of non-attachment and the value of staying put, living and working on a piece of land for so long that we know it in our bones, she told a story:

“A Sonoma gardening friend told me that early in his garlic career, Chester (Aaron) was given a variety of heritage garlic cloves by Seed Savers Exchange. He grew them all, but to the delight of his gardening mentors he kept selecting the same garlic variety, time after time, as the absolute best.

The Seed Savers keyed out the garlic and found it was from the Republic of Georgia. “It’s from Tochli—a—Tochlia—" “Not Tochliavari? Interrupted Chester, suddenly full of life. “Yeah, that’s it—Tochliavari,” they answered, surprised at Chester’s animation. It turned out that although Chester was born and raised in New York City, all his people, from his father to his grandfather and great-grandfather before him, hailed from the small, remote region of Tochliavari in the Republic of Georgia.
... Much depends on staying in one place long enough for the voice of the watershed where you live to claim you in its own tongue.”

That passage made me think about the absolute rightness of the taste of those oysters. My great-grandfather, a Mr. Booth, came from northern England in the 1880s and fetched up right near Allyn in Mason County, where he carpentered and farmed oysters when he wasn’t prospecting unsuccessfully for Yukon gold. Except for some forays for schooling and travel, my grandmother, mother, and I have all stayed within the reach of those Case Inlet waters ever since.

I don’t know if I could select that particular oyster taste out of the pack each time, the way Chester Aaron did with his Tochliavari garlic, but I would be more than happy to try.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Back to the Buffalo

I have an old New Yorker cartoon on my bulletin board at school. A buffalo (pardon me, a bison) is sitting at on a bar stool looking gloomy. In presumed response to the bartender's question he says "oh...stampeding off a metaphoric cliff, and you?"

As my students will tell you, in the right mood I think pretty much everything is a metaphor. I'm kind of like Freud in that way, though I hope in few others. So I feel certain that the marketing of corn-fed bison meat is a metaphor for something.

What I'm finding as I cruise the web and foodie magazines is that most commercial bison meat is grain finished. This doesn't mean the animals were moved from the iconic scene above to a feed lot, but corn was a part of their diet. I can also tell you that bovines really like corn. We used to give ours the overmature or underpollinated ears we didn't want to eat ourselves, and they loved it. That's not the same as force-feeding them field corn with no access to grass, I hasten to say, and fresh sweet corn is closer to its grassy roots than dried field corn, but it's not unnatural the way feeding ground up animal products to herbivores is unnatural, and unfortunately common.

But bison ranchers aren't paying to grain-finish their meat to make the critters happy. One of the points of raising bison is supposed to be that they can make efficient use of marginal land that is unsuitable for cattle or for dryland crops. And another point is supposed to be that the meat is lower in fat, and more specifically lower in "bad fat." Still another is, as Michael Pollan's many fans can quote, industrial corn farming has turned into a epic publicly financed boondoggle that contributes to a variety of environmental and social ills. So why would ranchers pay extra and give up the moral high ground to feed corn?

Here's one answer from the Nerud family of Chadron, Nebraska, owners of King Canyon Buffalo:
"Grass fed buffalo is okay, but we soon learned that corn fed buffalo grow faster, yield higher, and are much more tender. As the herd grew and we got wiser, cows and calves were fed corn. Our next bulls were finished on free choice corn and prairie hay. The difference in the meat was incredible. It was the best meat we had ever eaten and we knew we were on the right track."

Flip that statement around: Grass-fed animals grow slower, yield less, and tend to be leaner. (I say "tend to be" because our beasties in Sumas, who ate lush riverbottom grass and windfall apples besides the aforementioned corn snacks, were not what you'd call lean.) It takes more skillful cooking to bring out the flavor. Also, and this is particularly important to the restaurant business, the flavor and texture of completely grass-fed meat is less standardized. Meat is a sort of cellular diary of the elements that created it, and will vary in its cooking requirements from season to season and pasture to pasture. A corn finish makes for a more predictable final product.

If you are determined to eat completely grass-fed meat and you're not in a position to raise your own, it's going to take a bit of sleuthing and reading of fine print. Our main local purveyor of bison, Twisted S Bison, buys a lot of their meat from South Dakota, so you would need to quiz them, if you care. www.twistedsbison.com

If you are buying Oregon Country beef from the food co-op, you may be interested in their website. www.countrynaturalbeef.com, which is admirably straightforward and informative for livestock nerds such as myself. Here is a relevant passage from their FAQ page.

Q. Is it grass fed?
A. Most of our cattle are pasture and range raised for approximately 14-18 months. To assure a year around supply, some ranchers use winter growing lots where the cattle are fed a high roughage ration based on silages and hay. Then, for approximately the last three months, the diet is a ration of cooked potatoes, hay, corn and a vitamin mineral supplement. To ensure a consistent year around supply of quality cattle, all of our cattle go through the Beef Northwest feedlot, (owned by a member ranch) on their way to AB Foods.

I'm running out of time before I hit the road for a few days, so I'll postpone most cooking tips for another day. But here's a quickie. If you are using the leanest ground beef--not the 80/20 stuff that will cook up just fine with your regular burger approach, but the 90 percent or higher lean selections--you should:

Make the patties thinner; otherwise the outside will be tough before the inside is ready. Leaner meat cooks faster.

Lower your usual cooking temperature.

Add a "flavor carrier." Fat is a flavor transmitter, and one that works particularly well with the tastes of meat. Without the flavor transmission, you may as well just choke down a protein drink and skip the meal altogether. If your concern is animal fat but not calories, you could add olive oil. If that seems to miss the point of the lean meat, then try a bit of red wine, or soy sauce, or a small bit of Asian fish sauce, which sounds weird but works really well. Some people use Worcestershire sauce, which has the same anchovy base as fish sauce, plus lots of other flavors. I like to keep things simple so that I still can taste the distinctive qualities of that particular bit of meat.

For more about the Nerud family and bison ranching: www.kingcanyonbuffalo.com

And in the spirit of waste not, want not, here's a site for buying soap made from, among other things, bison tallow: http://www.trailersoap.com/

Friday, June 13, 2008

Buffaloed by Bison?

I'll be out of computer range for a couple of days, so I'm putting this up as a reminder myself to keep researching. In the meantime, maybe someone else has insights.

I picked up a pack of bison meat at Haggen, thinking "grass-fed," "low impact," "lower cholesterol," etc. I eat red meat just a few times a year and rarely miss it, but every now and then... Then I read the fine print and found that these beasties are corn-finished, like a feedlot steer. Apparently folks want the cachet of healthy "wild" buffalo but not the actual leanness, with attendent cooking challenges, of truly grass-fed meat.

Sheesh, say I.

But it does make me think that lots of people could probably use some help learning to cook with truly lean cuts of beef. If you are from a hunting family, you probably already know. If not (as I certainly wasn't), then there's a learning curve. If you are going to eat meat at all, but rarely, and you are going to pay a premium for responsibly raised animal flesh, it would be disappointing--and disrespectful to the animal, I think--to end up with a dried-out flavorless slab of stringy grayish stuff. And it doesn't have to be that way. I'll get back to that.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Let it be a challenge to you

Fringecup and woodruff are undaunted if not impressive underneath the double whammy of magnolia and spruce.

It's a durable teaching cliche--my mom heard it in the '60s when she was getting her credential, and I've heard it a time or ten myself, though with the fashion changing from paternalistic to collaborative leadership, it's gone out of style a bit.

Let it be a challenge to you. Did your class swell to 34 tenth-graders for your 28 desks. Are 8 of them basically illiterate, not counting the 5 who are still learning English? Do they all have to pass the WASL to graduate? Let it be a challenge to you (not to mention to them).

Actually, the last time I heard that phrase in person was a decade ago when I was teaching a credit makeup class for at-risk high schoolers. Two of them had been on opposite sides of a fight that had ended in hospitalization for one and a no-contact order for the other. They and their gang wannabe cohorts in the class were supposed to spend 80 minutes together in a pint-sized classroom, peaceably working on their English and history credits. I asked my principal how to accomplish that and he suggested I let it be a challenge to me. I wish I could say I rose to that challenge in Freedom Writers style, inspiring the whole roomful to find their common ground. More prosaically, the young warriors skipped school often enough so they were seldom there together, and both did somehow manage to graduate. One went on to thrive in life; the other stopped by my house a couple years ago, understandably jumpy because he had several outstanding warrants, and we had a long talk. At the end he thanked me for listening and shambled off. Last I heard he was back in jail.

But I digress. I was actually thinking about my southeast garden patch, aka Where Plants Go to Die. Yesterday I came across a book of lists for Pacific Northwest gardeners. One list was of Trees Impossible to Grow Anything Beneath. One was a Magnolia grandiflora; three others were spruces. Guess what shades that patch: a gorgeous big magnolia and a blue spruce. My neighbor has the trunks but we share the branches, and more to the point, the aggressive, matted root systems. "Test your plant growing abilities with these!" say the authors. In other words, let it be a challenge to you. Since that patch is the view out my dining room window, I'm motivated to get something going.

I can tell you some things that don't grow there: maidenhair ferns, Japanese painted ferns, mountain laurel, lace cap hydrangea (still clinging to life, but not a happy plant), astilbe (same as the hydrangea), red osier dogwood, various spring bulbs, and other sacrificial victims whose names have gone unrecorded.

It's probably not surprising that most of the keepers so far are Northwest natives who are used to the shady, competitive life of the undergrowth. Plus sweet woodruff, of course, which is sort of a starling of the plant world--attractive and adaptable and altogether too much of a good thing. I've got reasonably happy goatsbeard, fringecup (Tellima grandiflora), shooting star (Dodecatheon), inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), wild ginger, and native bleeding heart. A native flowering current may also make the cut; it's too soon to tell. So it seems possible that spring and summer will look welcoming out there in another year or two. I'm still looking for small evergreens that can take the punishment and provide a view in winter.

Next school year when I'm sitting at the table working on curriculum, trying to figure out how to connect my students to literature and to each other, I'll be looking out at that patch. Chances are it will be dark out there, but I still want to know that something has taken root, that "Impossible to Grow" is just another challenge.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

In the Eye of the Beholder

Here's a beautiful sight.

Thanks to a grant from Whatcom County Solid Waste Management, the energy of Nooksack Valley High School's Environment Friendly Club (EFC), its adviser David Ostlund, and our wonderful Home and Family Life teacher Lois Rienstra, the vegie leftovers from NVHS foods classes are now being composted in this lineup of bins. Wilted flowers and greenery from the Floral Design class go in the mix as well, and the FFA club can use the compost in the soil mix for their annual plant sale.

The EFC has also inaugurated food waste collection in the school cafeteria and planted more than 50 trees around campus (with help from Cloud Mountain Farm and Bakerview Nursery).

At least two students plan to initiate elementary school recycling programs for their senior projects next year.
Hurray for NVHS!
Having said that, I am also simply delighted that the school year is almost over, the final school paper and literary magazine are published, and I can get back to blogging.

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.