Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Food Trends: Hot Tips about Hop Tips

Even though I come to the market with a list, sometimes a farmer brings something new to the market, and I just can't pass it by. A few weeks ago it was hop tips from Rockridge Orchards.

I know about hops because when I visited Rockridge Orchards a few years ago, Wade Bennett pointed out hop vines growing near one of his greenhouses. "I grow them for local microbreweries," he'd told me.

I hadn't thought about hop tips as vegetables, but as I gazed at them in the sun, Wade mentioned they tasted a little like asparagus and all you had to do was saute them in olive oil with garlic. (Sounds like just like this recipe. Easy--that's just what I wanted.)
My "trusty" kitchen assistant hopped up on his bench for a photo, but I must have taken too long because the hungry hound got carried away and started munching. I hope this isn't the beginning of "bad dog assistant."

I wondered how Wade knew about cooking hops and then last Friday, I stumbled upon and bought The Locavore's Handbook by Leda Meredith and she mentioned eating hops and the asparagus flavor they impart. She also had this recipe in a post about a year ago. (By the way, Leda's blog is incredibly inspiring and filled with great local eating and gardening tips.)

I investigated hops further and discovered in Barron's Food Lover's Companion that hops shoots are widely available in Europe. Who knew?

Anyway, when I bought the tips, I went home and made Wade's simple recipe with oil, garlic, salt and pepper. I couldn't resist adding my favorite Mama Lil's Peppers and spinach from Willie Green's Organic Farm.

Tom took a bite and paused. "It's chewy and doesn't really taste like asparagus," he'd said.

I took a bite was immediately dismayed because the stems were tough and the peppers drowned out any asparagus flavor. The recipe needed tweaking but how?

Many first time recipes flop, but the good thing about my kitchen assistant is he's always waiting for an opportunity like this because my kitchen flops are his treasures.

Here's what it looked like:

I told Wade last Saturday the hops were tough and asked if they should be blanched first, he said, "You cooked them too long. They need a high heat for just a few minutes." Next time, I reminded myself, I wouldn't be in so much of a hurry and I'd get all the instructions for the recipe.

Wade says chefs are snapping the hop tips up before he can bring them to market and to phone the farm ahead if I want some. That's how it is at the market if you want great treasures.

I'm putting in my order for hop tips this week before they're gone for the season. What's on your market list this week?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Gourmet Magazine and Garlicky Broccoli Rabe

When my collection of Gourmet magazines got wet recently, I was so sad to toss them out. I'd saved these magazines over the past ten years, and as I fished out favorite issues that had somehow escaped the dampness, I discovered my all-time favorite issue--The Restaurant Issue from October 2005-- had survived. Maybe it's not worth much on Ebay, but it's a classic issue, not available anywhere.

This issue featured chefs across the country and it highlighted American cuisine. My favorite article was "Life on the Line," by Francis Lam, a chef in culinary school who does an externship at Higgins restaurant in Oregon. Chef Greg Higgins is a champion of sustainable farms and food practices. I know his name because of Ayer's Creek Farm, one of the farm profiles in my cookbook.

Anyway, here's my favorite quote from this story:

"To me the only thing as important as how food tastes is the community it builds. At Higgins, it seemed this went beyond sharing a meal with friends. It meant understanding where the food comes from, supporting farmers and artisans, creating economies of scale."

Simple food for thought. But oddly as I revisited this magazine, I realized I'd never made a recipe from Gourmet.

I was determined to find one recipe in this particular issue and I did--a simple dish made with broccoli rabe.

To find broccoli "rabe" or "raab" head to the farmers' market. Maybe you can find it at a natural foods store, and you might find it labeled "Rapini." I usually look for it in the spring, but tend to lose track of it in the summer when so much produce is available. At Nash's Organic Produce I found a cauliflower rabe (purple) and one that was a Brussels sprout rabe (yellow). The farmers' market is all about flexibility.

I took one of each and planned to use both to make the dish. Then I looked up broccoli raab in Elizabeth Schneider's book From Amaranth to Zucchini where it said, "Even modified, broccoli raab is a bitter blast to a sweet loving American palate."

My kitchen assistant will take one of each--in his dreams!

Blanching reduces the bitter tones of broccoli rabe and the sweet taste of caramelized garlic compliments this fantastic assertive green.
2 pounds broccoli rabe, bottom 2 inches trimmed
8 large cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1. Blanch broccoli rabe (whole) in an 8 quart pot of boiling salted water, uncovered until tender, about 3 minutes. (The original recipe said 6 minutes but this is way too long for the skinny stalks of broccoli rabe.)
2. Drain and immediately transfer to a pan of ice water to halt cooking. Then drain and chop into 1-inch segments.
3. Cook garlic in a 12-inch skillet over moderate heat until golden, then add broccoli rabe and cook until heated through--about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

  • Don't be tempted to add a squeeze of lemon, it would seriously detract from the sweet garlic tones which really make this dish special.
  • I cooked buckwheat soba noodles for the bottom layer, and sprinkled Massa Organic toasted almonds over the top to make this our main dish for dinner. As you can see above my exuberant kitchen assistant thought the blanched rabe was the main dish and he would have been happy with that.
  • Don't tempt the kitchen assistant with the final version

I saved a few more issues of Gourmet, and maybe I'll find another treasure. I'd definitely make this recipe again and again.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Recalls, Dr.Oz, and Knowing Your Farmer

As you can see my kitchen assistant was totally underwhelmed by this package of my favorite rice that arrived yesterday. Rice and almonds are this farm's specialty and since neither one grows in the Pacific Northwest, I ordered them from this organic California farm and they arrived by the U.S. mail.

"Something is rattling in that heavy box," the letter carrier had said. I laughed, but that familiar rattle was music to my ears. Likewise for the almonds because when you've tasted the best why waste your life on the rest?

Flash forward to this morning when I noticed a Google alert for recalled rice from Woolworths. "Who buys rice from Woolworths?" I wondered. I was so shocked by this piece of news, I posted it on FaceBook.

"Who even has a Woolworths?" my friend Phil asked.

"Exactly, I thought they'd gone out of business long ago," I laughed.

But this recall is no laughing matter. It seems the rice was tainted with metal shavings. The article went on to say that the heads of the companies involved have issued apologies on the "inconvenience" they may have caused consumers.

Metal shavings in the gut is an inconvenience?

If you add metal shavings to grain shipments, it makes them heavier and unscrupulous sellers earn more money. Will metal detectors scan the grains on incoming ships to help protect consumers? Don't count on it. Come to think of it, health care reform might have included closer inspection of imported foods for product contamination.

If there is one essential rule about buying healthy food that not even Dr. Oz has mentioned is to pay attention to where your food comes from. Don't assume that because a package of rice is on the shelf in Safeway, Woolworths, or even your local natural foods store, that it's safe to eat.

Know your farmer, know your food. End of rant, for now anyway.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Raw Milk Controversy and Food Recalls

Yesterday an article about raw milk on the front page of The Seattle Times caught my eye. I was shocked to learn the main farm in the raw milk controversy article was Dungeness Valley Creamery, which was linked with three E.coli cases in December.

When we go to Nash's farm on the Olympic Peninsula, I always stop at the Dungeness Valley Creamery Farm store. I buy a quart of milk, put it in my ice chest and carefully transport it home. I love the taste and if it weren't for this milk (and the goat mozzerella cheese from Port Madison Farm), I could be a serious vegan.

The photo above is from this farm. The barns and room where milk is bottled are extremely clean and I've never felt bad about buying this milk at the farm store, but when it comes to purchasing raw milk in grocery stores, I remember my mom totally freaking out over me buying raw milk at a little hole-in-the-wall health food store when I was in high school. I was a health food nerd in high school and often spent my allowance at these little stores.

"Your father's sister died from drinking raw milk," Mom told me as she poured the milk I'd bought down the drain. (Only later did I learn Dad's sister had died from something else, but Mom had obviously believed raw milk was the culprit.) I had no idea why I might die from it, but to this day, I can't purchase raw milk from a grocery store. It's passed through too many hands for me.

The Seattle Times article mentioned cases where other raw milk dairies had also been implicated. Two things the article failed to mention was:
  • Where the customers who got sick purchased their milk. Marlene's in Federal Way and Tacoma and Whole Foods sell Dungeness Valley Creamery milk.
  • How this food was transported home and the temperature in the refrigerators where it was store. I'm not blaming the victims, I'm just saying sometimes people are too casual and trusting when it comes to foods that need to be kept cold and consumed promptly.
Three final questions:
  • Would I buy this milk again? Yes. According to the article it wasn't certain these cases of E.coli came from the milk on the farm. There was no recall because it wasn't found in the milk, just from cow poo on the farm.
  • What do I think of this story about food contamination? I immediately wondered why the Seattle Times has not put the FDA's recall of more than 10,000 processed products because of salmonella on the front page.
  • Isn't this massive recall of processed foods newsworthy enough or did the paper see something negative about local foods as an opportunity to sell more papers?
I wonder why local milk and not the massive recall of processed foods that most consumers know absolutely nothing about made front page news.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Garden Blunders: Gardening Rule Number 1

Did I mention we're trying to grow some of our own food supply? If you're new to gardening, it's easier in theory than practice.

I bought these grey shallots last fall. I had dreams of planting and harvesting these treasures from my own front yard. Grey shallots have a light sweet taste and when sauteed in olive oil until browned they impart the best sweet and crispy tones and textures I've ever had. There isn't anything savory these grey shallots can't improve.

So who wouldn't want them growing right outside the kitchen door? I bought about three bags at the market from Liz and Michael at Grouse Mountain Farm in Chelan, and I carried them home to eat and plant. It was hard to ration the ones for eating.
This is a page from Elizabeth Schneider's Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini with shallots from the market. Grey shallots are the ones on the right and the more common shallots are on the left. These are also good, but the flavor of grey shallots is more satisfying and you don't need as many to flavor a dish.

Did I mention I'm new to gardening? I only bring this up because I started seriously planting more vegetables last summer. And last fall I put in beets and spinach and chard and I sowed a cover crop, but I'd neglected to tell Tom who was also working our front yard garden and when I was gone to the market, he planted the shallots, exactly where I'd sowed the cover crop.

"How was I supposed to know you'd planted anything there?" he'd said. And if that wasn't bad enough, he couldn't recall each shallots exact location. Would there be much point in digging them up? The lazy gardener's thought is: why not let them go and we'll just find them when they sprout up? This approach led to:

Gardening Rule Number One

Tho shalt keep a notebook about your garden. Drawings and details of where and what you've planted will come in handy and may even save your plants from horrible fates.

When the cover crop sprouted up, we spotted the problem like a bad debt on the horizon. The shallot tops looked exactly like the cover crop.

In late January we considered the possibility that the shallots weren't even there. That perhaps they'd been crowded out.

Here is how it looked a few weeks ago. Every week we kept hoped to spot the shallots. Finally Tom uncovered all the shallots last weekend by snip and taste.They were thin and tiny and fell over as if exhausted by rye grass. They looked like they needed a plant doctor. It's amazing they survived.

For anybody who says I think I'll grow a few things, gardening is more than sowing seeds and harvesting tons of vegetables. Perhaps each lesson this season will become a rule.

And speaking of rules, a second rule is coming because we'd no sooner transplanted our peas when hungry eager crows showed up. If we'd have gone off to work, we'd have missed the bird buffet. We raced out and covered the tiny plants with the plastic cover we had for the seedlings.

Time to get out the gardening books again.

What else can I expect after birds? And will our shallots ever recover?

Look close and you'll see our exhausted skinny grey shallots.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Edible Phoenix, Coming Home To Eat, and one Hungry Monkey

I went to visit my daughter last week in Phoenix and saw these lemons dangling from a tree in a backyard.

I lived in New Mexico when I was young and I never saw citrus like the big lemons and oranges in backyards in Phoenix. Shortly before I'd arrived, rain had refreshed the landscape and washes were filled with water. Green covered distant hills making this normally harsh land seem refreshing.

Later, at a trendy clothing store in Scottsdale, I picked up a copy of Edible Phoenix. Here are a few of the spring produce selections listed for Phoenix:

  • asparagus
  • beets
  • cabbage
  • eggplant
  • fava beans
  • grapefruit
  • chard
  • summer squash
  • turnips
Asparagus in the Southwest? I'd love to taste some. I visited a farmers' market in Phoenix a few years ago and I never saw this diverse selection of vegetables, but I brought home grapefruit from the market.

I don't really remember much about the Southwest when I was young, except for pueblos, dusty dry landscapes, big spiders and rattlesnakes. But when I read Coming Home to Eat (2002), by Gary Nabhan memories of buttery tasting pinon nuts came back to me.

Before Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Vegetable Miracle (2007) and Alisa Smith and J.B. Macknnon's Plenty (2007) and the 100 mile Diet, Gary Nabhan kicked off the local food movement and ate food within 250 miles of his home in the Southwest for one year. Coming Home to Eat was one of the first books linking global politics and local food.

"There are moments in this life that I recall not with visual snapshots but as tastes and fragrances. They make sense to me, to who I am, in ways that I suppose are profoundly rooted."

This opening sentence brought back the dry scent of sagebrush and almost decadent taste of pinon nuts pried from the cones of pine trees. I remember being shocked that something that tasted so good came from a pine tree.

I loved visiting family, but I missed our Northwest local treasures and my Kitchen Assistant who loves all food, especially produce from the market.

On the flight home I finished Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater by Mathew Amster-Burton. Another book that was hard to put down, I was smiling after the first few sentences of this book. I loved Mathew's daughter Iris. You would too. Check out his first sentences:

"My daughter's first meal was supposed to be, oh let's say local organic carrots pureed with homemade chicken broth in a hand-cranked food mill. That's what everybody wants for their kid, right? I swear I was totally planning on a feast of that nature when fate intervened and a doughnut fell on her head."

I rooted for Mathew's daughter Iris all the way, but the part I liked the best was when Mathew took up gardening to encourage Iris to eat green vegetables. He checked Gardening for Dummies out of the library and wrote: "It was the scariest book I've ever read." Deciding what and where to plant, what containers to use and how to deal with pests--perfect produce from good farmers makes growing things look so easy. Hungry Monkey was as charming as it's title. The book was a great end to a warm, sunny trip filled with lots of fresh salads.

My own "hungry monkey" is sad the only photo shoot for this past weekend is with a book.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Local Food Gifts

I love gifts of local foods and when a package with these kale chips arrived from my sister in Austin, I realized I must have mentioned kale one too many times to her last fall when I visited. I recalled telling her that my friend Patty makes kale chips and also that I'd discovered this fantastic kale and avocado salad at Whole Foods in Austin. Who couldn't love kale when paired with creamy avocado and drenched in a luscious honey-lemon dressing?

I couldn't get enough of the salad when I was there, but I felt a little bad since my sister was stuck in the hospital without any appetite and the hospital was serving up just about the worst food I'd ever seen. If anything could put you in an early grave it's the deep fried corn dog and jalapeno poppers served in the hospital. Anyway, when I was there, I'd leave the dreary hospital, go to Whole Foods, about a block away and dine at the Raw Food Bar. Now why don't they have that option here? Because that's where I discovered my inner foodie really did love kale.

So these packages of kale chips arrived--original, Bombay curry and Zesto Nacho. Gluten-free, raw, vegan--that's the kind of snack I'm up for and my Kitchen Assistant, Finn, was right there with me. Mr Conventional Palate (Tom) declined to try them. I don't think he could quite wrap his mind around kale and chips in the same sentence, but I thought they were quite good and Finn eagerly licked up the crumbs.

When I want to pay it forward with a gift from the market, one choice is Holmquist Hazelnuts. These come in all kinds of flavors and they even offer gift packs.

Another choice is Olson's beef jerky. Maybe it sounds like an odd choice for a vegetarian, but people rave about this jerky and it's grass fed local beef. If you're going to eat animal products, you should be at least up to speed with how those animals are raised and the alternatives available. Get Jo Robinson's book Pasture Perfect, available on her Web site. Speaking of Jo's book--that's another perfect gift idea for friends who love meat.

Finn dreams that I'll try and take a picture of him with a hunk of beef jerky.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

5 Types of CSAs and 5 Things to Consider Before Signing Up for One

March is the time to sign up for a CSA farm share that begins in a few months. A CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), is where you usually (but not always) prepay for a weekly box or bag of produce grown on the farm. Price, delivery and any other details are explained in flyers or on farm Web sites. This prepayment is for farm operating money during the time before harvest.

Although CSAs began as pay-in-advance for a fixed item box of farm produce (usually 6 to 12 produce items) for a specified number of weeks, delivered at a certain place, an increasing number of CSAs are veering off the traditional CSA format in the Pacific Northwest.

Here are 5 types of CSAs you might find when spring sign-ups start:

  • Traditional This organic farm offers a weekly box of produce and lists their weekly selections with recipes, produce information and updates about the farm on their Web site. They also host potlucks early in the season so members can meet their farmers, learn more about the farm and farming techniques and mingle with fellow CSA members.
  • Market Bucks This organic farm offers "Nash's Farm Bucks" as an alternative for smaller families. The “bucks” are purchased like Traditional CSAs. At the market each week Market Bucks CSA members pick out produce at the market and pay with the buks. These CSA options are a savings over paying the full retail price. Other farms also have this type of option. Check around if you think this is one for you.
  • Farm Network Some farms like this one purchase some of their weekly produce from other organic growers for their CSA shares, giving members a larger variety in their weekly boxes.
  • Value Added Some farms, like this one are adding items, like eggs, meats, cheese, artisanal bread or even fresh flower shares like this farm to their box selections. These “add-on’s” are usually, but not limited to, local farms. These add on items take CSAs to a whole new level.
  • Single Item This CSA is offered by fruit farms like this one. These farmers tend small-scale organic orchards and send email notices to return CSA customers each spring. Customers can select the size of box and the weeks that they will pick up the box. This prepayment guarantees a box of this outstanding fruit. New customers can sign up for a spring email and order form during summer. Then the following spring, they'll receive the form.

Confused about how to choose? Here are 5 suggestions to make your selection easier.

  • Meet the farmer. Check at your favorite farmers' market and search out a variety of farmers who advertise CSAs. Visit the farm, if possible, and check the farm’s Web site. Ask about growing techniques, crops and how long the farmer has offered a CSA. Also be sure to carefully check out the farms’ produce to get an idea about what will be in your farm share.
  • Investigate. Check with past or present CSA share holders. Ask market shoppers, even other farmer friends about the farm. Ask whether the farm purchases produce and where that produce comes from. Also does the farm host CSA member potlucks or gatherings at the farm? If you're looking for a sense of community, these kinds of offerings are important. Check out past events like the CSA potlucks hosted by farms like this one.
  • Consider flexibility. Can you be improvisational when a preselected CSA produce box arrives? Can you cook chard on a moment’s notice? Do you even like chard? Also, will you be home for the next 25 weeks? What happens if you miss a week? If flexibility is high on your list, consider farms that offers a "farm bucks" type of share.
  • Think about box size. How much produce can you eat in a week? About how many items will arrive each week, and are there different sizes of boxes available? Sometimes splitting a box with a friend makes the most sense. You could either split each box or each party could get a box every other week.
  • Picking up your share. Is the location convenient? Is there any flexibility if you can’t make it? If an emergency arises, can you pick it up elsewhere?

With all the variety in CSAs I've seen in the past few years, there's a CSA for everyone now, at least in the Northwest. Last year I got two CSAs. I’m putting in for my CSA farm share at this farm tomorrow.

What’s your choice this year? And what suggestions would you add for finding a CSA?

Here’s Finn with my Stoney Plains CSA last year.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Perfect Spring Salad

I'd been craving spring greens and I got lucky at the farmers' market when I spotted arugula at Nash's Organic Produce.

I love arugula's zippy peppery tones. It wakes up salads and transforms pasta dishes, plus it’s available almost year-round in the Pacific Northwest. But the thing about this exotic green is that you have to use it within a few days or it wilts. There’s nothing good about wilted arugula. That's $3.50 down the drain. You can wrap it in a paper towel and store it for a few days, but it’s a risk. Who wants to feed $3.50 to the compost heap? I've got better things to do with my food money. I say enjoy arugula the day you get it.

I grabbed a red cabbage for color but across the aisle from the arugula, beets called my name. Pickled beets are the winter equivalent of summer tomatoes in salads at our house now. You need that tang, so just steam the beets and marinate then with a little balsamic vinegar. But only use the good stuff for this or you’ll be sorry. Fini is my favorite brand and I always get at least two jars for my pantry for a year's supply.

The carrots also looked good, but local carrots can be deceptive this time of year. It’s the very end of the season so they don’t have as much flavor and though they can pass in looks, they might be rubbery or taste like wood. You could always ask to sample carrots before you buy. I’ll buy them now, but I’d rather roast them than eat them raw. My Kitchen Assistant, Finn, thinks they're good no matter what.

I also picked up dried basil at Rock Island, Jerry Pipitone’s farm booth. Jerry sells a great selection of herbs and dried fruits during the winter. I’d add a pinch of basil to the marinated beets.

Right before I left the market, I spotted Comice pears at Booth Canyon Orchards. These are creamy white fleshed and delicately sweet pears. I picked out three and as I bought them I imagined the flavors of greens, beets and pears.

There was just one thing missing from my salad daydream--Rogue Creamery Smoky Blue. This is the best cheese ever. The only problem is that it's from Oregon, but since I’d just finished my biannual grocery food buy, I had a hunk of this incredible cheese. It was just waiting for the right salad to come along.

Finn takes his ingredient inspection duty seriously but I'm sure he's a little disappointed I didn't put my blue cheese in the bowl. I may trust him with red cabbage, but I'm not a fool. Smoky Blue Cheese is way too tempting and the hounds have snatched from me before.

I had a bit of Holmquist Orchards hazelnut oil in my refrigerator so I made this dressing from The Northwest Vegetarian Cookbook to top the salad:

Orange-Hazelnut Dressing
Makes 1/4 cup
2 tablespoons hazelnut oil
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 teaspoon finely chopped orange zest
Pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper

Whisk together the oil, orange juice, and zest in a small bowl. Add the salt and pepper. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Pretty as a picture, here it is. What's in your spring salad?