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
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

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.