Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Forks over Knives and other food movies

I'd wanted to see Forks over Knives ever since the Veggie Queen posted something about it on Facebook some time ago. I don't know how long the movie has been out, but a few weeks ago, Mister Smiley Dog, the guy who delivers our dog food, showed up late and when I commented about the time, he said he'd just seen Forks over Knives. "You've got to see it," he said. "Very thought provoking." I was intrigued.

I'm a foodie movie geek, and I've seen about every foodie movie that's been released. Okay maybe not all the foreign movies, but I've seen a lot and some I've seen more than once. I am done with the graphic animal slaughterhouse movies. The message has been hammered in--put down the pork chops! (At least the industrially raised ones.)

Anyway, Mister Smiley Dog liked Forks over Knives, so I was there the next day.

The movie did not disappoint. The story follows Lee Fulkerson, who decides to try a vegan plant-based diet after he gets alarming numbers in his bloodwork. Think about the opposite of Super Size Me. Fulkerson was headed down the heart attack highway and dangerously veering towards diabetes--all those warning signs from a simple blood draw, but by following a strict plant-based diet, Fulkerson improved his health profile. So did two other people who had serious health problems in this movie.

Fulkerson consults dieticians, examines health statistics, looks at numbers and checks out studies. The China Study, by Dr. T. Colin Campbell plays a big role in this movie. And other doctors such as Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Dr. Neil Barnard and Dr. John McDougal also discuss the many benefits of plant based diets.

I liked this movie but I also got the impression or message that everything would be great if you changed your diet, and I'm not sure a one-size-fits-all works for diets. Everyone can stand to make positive changes, especially cutting out or back on animal products, but does everyone need to be vegan and totally give up oils, animal products and dairy? I think we all just do the best we can.

The best thing about Forks over Knives is that it's a proactive food message in a crowded sea of scary food movies. Seems to me that after the stock market crash a few years back and with the wars our country is in, we got used to hearing bad news every day. Maybe people just expect it now; maybe, if it's too positive, it sounds false. Where's the conflict? Where's the drama?

A movie with all positive information on dietary changes is now called an infomercial?

Some reviewers like this one expected so much more from this movie. The reviewer called it vegan propaganda, and claimed the movie wove in happy stories and came off like an infomercial. I couldn't help wondering whether this reviewer would have been happier if the movie had depicted murder and torture of vegetables or the vegetarians who made the movie. Aside from the style of the movie, I was a little disappointed that they never got into the specifics of the perfect vegan diet, but overall this movie was as refreshing as the spring sunshine in the Northwest.

Once when I was writing my first book, an editor had encouraged me to be more positive when writing about farming. She'd said, "When people hear too many negative things, they shut down." It was a comment I never forgot. It made me look for the positive spin on anything. The last positive food movie I watched was How to Cook Your Life, the Zen cooking class movie staring Edward Espe Brown. It was released in 2007.

It's about time film makers got more positive and deliver food message movies in a more inspiring, uplifting way. This movie is leading the way. I highly recommend it; for me it represents a beacon of hope for food movies of the future.

This movie is not rated by my Cooking Assistant.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Soup Project: Roasted Tomato Soup with Grilled Asparagus

This soup sparked an argument at our house. It all started innocently enough. I found a recipe for Braised Leek Hummus from Nash's Farm that I'd picked up at the market weeks ago. As I read through the recipe, I imagined using spring onions instead of leeks and turning hummus into a soup.

I don't usually run my soup musings by Tom. His tastes run toward the conventional--grilled steak, a baked potato and a big salad is his four star meal, and I think he grew up with that meal and never got past it. Mostly he eats vegetarian meals that I make and he likes the end results of my soup projects. Still, I wasn't sure about this one, so I mistakenly asked.

"What do you think of a hummus as a soup base?"

"I don't like it," He'd said immediately.

"What do you mean you don't like it? It's soup with the flavor of hummus. Can't you imagine it?"

"I don't like hummus. Why would I like a soup with hummus?"

Thirty six years and I had no clue the man didn't like hummus. "It's not hummus, it's just the flavor," I insisted. "Can't you just be open to soup?"

"I don't like hummus" he said

"You just don't get cooking," I finally said, "I won't tell you what I'm making anymore."

Okay it's so grade school, but I was suddenly determined to make a soup where he wouldn't notice the hummus and he'd ask for more. That meant I had to use exactly the right ingredients.

What else could I use? I scanned my pantry, then my freezer, where I spotted two containers of dried roasted tomatoes. This was a flavor Tom liked. Score one for me. I got the tomatoes last fall at Ayers Creek Farm and I roasted them in my oven on a low temperature until they were partially dried. Then I frozen these tomatoes in containers.

I removed one of the containers, thawed the tomatoes then chopped them into pieces. I put them in the freezer because oven dried tomatoes have more moisture than dried tomatoes. I'm not sure how they dry them conventionally but they're usually tough and very hard. If you use dried tomatoes from a natural foods store for this, cut the amount of tomatoes in half.

I had a half cup of dry garbanzos or chick peas, also from Ayers Creek Farm last fall, so I cooked them a day ahead. I had saved them in the refrigerator, but Tom took half of them for a morning burrito. I didn't really have enough to make hummus, but I had to make it work.

I got everything ready and realized it would cook a lot faster in my new pressure cooker. Since I got Jill Nussinow's new cookbook, I've been using my pressure cooker for everything.

Here's the recipe:

Roasted Tomato Soup with Grilled Asparagus
Roasted tomatoes make this soup heavenly and once the smoky asparagus is added, this soup wins over even the loudest hummus critics. While I made the soup, Tom grilled the asparagus for about 7 to 10 minutes.
(Serves 4 to 6)

3 or 4 large spring onions, sliced
1 tablespoon canola or olive oil
2 cups roasted dried tomatoes, chopped (Use 1 cup if using prepacked dried organic tomatoes)
1 large potato, washed and diced
1 garnet or jewel yam, washed and diced
6 cups water
1/2 cup cooked or canned garbanzo beans
1/4 cup sesame tahini
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped Mama Lil's peppers or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 to 2 pounds grilled medium-size asparagus

1. Heat the base of the pressure cooker over medium heat and place 3/4 of the onions in the pan. Drizzle canola oil over the onions. Stir and cook until soft and slightly caramelized.

2. Add tomatoes, potato, yam and 5 cups of water. Secure lid, increase heat and bring pressure up to high. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow pressure to come down naturally. Stir to blend the sweet potatoes and tomatoes when done. While tomatoes cook, prepare hummus.

3. Blend garbanzo beans, tahini, lemon juice, and Mama Lil's peppers adding up to 1 cup of water to thin. Blend with the tomato soup. Add more water, if desired and adjust the flavor by adding more lemon, salt, or pepper

4. Cut grilled asparagus into bite size pieces. Stir into the soup, reserving the tops for garnish. Serve as is or with toasted bread crumbs or grated cheese.

"Well? What did you think?" I asked after Tom ate his last spoonful.

"Is there enough for tomorrow?" His hopeful tone gave me the answer.

My theory is this: the sesame and garbanzo flavor of hummus floated into the background and blended with the tomatoes, potato and yam and the acidity balanced because of the sweet tones. The sesame-garbanzo also worked perfectly with the lemon. The peppers as always contribute zing, and where would the world be without zing? The smoky flavor of the asparagus was the cheese in the tamale. Maybe all you really need is crunch.

This is soup number 20, can you believe it?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Let Us Farm, Mizuna and the U District Farmers' Market

Three Cheers for Let Us Farm

Located in Oakville, Washington along the Chehalis River, south of Olympia, Let Us Farm is owned and farmed by Cecilia Boulais and Steve Hallstrom. This sustainable organic farm was once a dairy farm and now boasts rows of vibrant vegetables.

When the U District Farmers' Market opened in 1993, Cecilia and Steve were among the first farmers selling their organic produce. Their farm then was called Tolt Farm and was along the Tolt River, which is east of Seattle, near Carnation.

When I was busy at cooking classes at PCC Natural Markets on Saturdays, my cooking Assistant Emily (not to be confused with my current 4-legged assistant) always brought me Port Madison Cheese and greens from Tolt Farm.

Besides their abundant greens, Cecilia and Steve grow and sell a wide variety of vegetables from rhubarb in the spring to pumpkins in the fall.

Small farms like Let Us Grow are fortunate enough to have flexible yearly farm plans. They can gamble on a few new varieties of vegetables, just to try them out and see how people respond to them.

When I inquired about a green (the one on the left in the photo below) Cecilia said it was a different variety of mizuna that they were trying out this year.

Mizuna is a Japanese mustard green, a little spicy but not as zippy as arugula. When I did a search I stumbled across this blog that described mizuna as hearty enough to grow during winter months in Japan. No wonder it does so well here.

On the left is white frills and in the middle is red frills mizuna. On the far right is the kind of mizuna you can find in grocery stores.

"White frills tastes very different from the others," Cecilia said. It's reminiscent of curly mustard greens with a zippy touch of wasabi. I bought it last week and yesterday, Cecilia asked what I did with it.

I'd added finely chopped white frills leaves to a soup, an omelet and a stir fry. I even sprinkled a bit (not too much) on green salads. But don't add it when you make a salad with arugula--I'm sure the two strong flavors would compete with each other.

Often when you aren't sure about a new variety of produce, farmers offer a sample to taste. Farmers can get instant feed back on a product and also pass on your suggestions and recipes to other customers.

"Are you in line?" A customer asked a little impatiently behind me. People are serious produce produce buyers at the U District market. I wouldn't say they're rude, but you should have your act together, pay attention and move along in line. I nod and move forward.

The line to buy produce wraps around the Let Us Grow table and we wait, people chat and trade news and recipes. I eye the radishes and mentally put them on my must-have list for next week. This year, I've vowed to use radish greens in a few recipes.

Even though I arrive at the market before it opens, I chat with so many people and I end up waiting in number lines. But waiting in lines is all part of the market experience. I gaze around well-displayed booths and impulsively buy other items not on my list. I often think about the amount of stuff farmers chauffeur to the market. It's amazing that they remember everything. Then after driving from farm to market, they unpack everything, arrange the displays, put up the signs and then maybe take a breath before customers form lines and pepper them with questions.

This past weekend only Cecilia was at the market. "Steve is farming," she'd said. One thing I really like about Let Us Farm is you can chat with Steve and Cecilia as they sell their produce. I'm not sure why but I tend to buy more at booths where the main farmer is the seller.

While I was waiting in line to buy white frills mizuna and Romaine lettuce, another long term market shopper remarked, "I was afraid Let Us Farm wouldn't come back this year."

And they nearly didn't come back, but their farm was saved by two enthusiastic interns who applied help on their farm this spring. A lot of market shoppers don't realize how difficult it can be to bring all this great produce to market. Farm labor is just one of the many issues.

The Future of the U-District Farmers' Market

Another farmer issue involves the fate of the U-District Market, a market that has helped sustain farms like Let Us Grow since 1993.

On Monday June 6th at 7pm at the University Heights Center for the Community, Room 104, Seattle Parks and Recreation and The University Heights Center for the Community invite the community to voice their opinions about the University Heights Open Space Project, a proposed new park where the farmer market is located. While the idea of a park is great, the proposed idea leaves a question about how farmers will be able to drive in and unload produce. Also the park is going to include a number of features and the farmers' market and the P-patch are just two of those features.

I'll be at this meeting with two of my market friends. I hope to see you there.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Soup Project: Spring Turnip Greens Soup and Market News

Market News

At the market on Saturday I gathered a variety of produce for a vegetable soup when my friend Patty mentioned that Mair Farm had spring turnips. After buying two amazing greens from Let Us Farm, I headed over to the Mair Farm-Taki booth and waited in line.

Mair Farm-Taki was profiled in my book for their excellent tree fruit. Though Mair Farm brings lots of fruits to the market, it's also an organic row crop farm, and in the past few years, farmer Katsumi Taki has transitioned to organic Asian vegetable varieties since most farmers sell traditional European varieties at the market. Taki's spinach and turnips have Asian roots and his popular Japanese cucumbers are one of a kind in the Northwest. They are so unique they cost more and they command long lines at the market. These Asian treasures everyone lines up for are worth a budget splurge, but you have to get there early or you'll miss out. I snagged some of the last cucumbers left and it was only a few minutes after the market opened.

One of our market friends, Herb is 90 years old. He is blind and his assistant always accompanies him to the market. Herb and his assistant buy fresh vegetables every week and load them into Herb's granny cart. It's inspiring to watch how much produce he buys. Herb got 3 bunches of turnips and 2 bunches of spinach from Mair Farm. I was only going to get one bunch of turnips until I saw Herb loading up. The market can be a little dangerous for my budget, but I can't argue that fresh organic vegetables play a key role in health so I could feel the splurge coming before I actually had the greens in hand.

While I waited in line, I overheard two women talking about Billy Allstot of Billy's Gardens in Tonasket. Billy's fresh organic tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are crowd magnets at the market. One of the woman mentioned that Billy won't be back this year. The other said, he was making more money selling his produce to Whole Foods but maybe if people wrote to him and told him how much he was appreciated, he'd reconsider and come back. Another market vendor told me that Billy isn't going to sell at any local markets and is now sending his fresh produce on barges to Alaska like Full Circle Farm.

"He can make more money sending it to Alaska because they're dying for fresh produce there," she'd said. This makes me wonder about the shifting landscape of fresh produce available in this area. I wonder how long before other farms follow suit and send locally grown treasures to Alaska?

Another piece of market news involves the future of the the U-District market. The owners of this parking lot want to see more revenue and they don't think the market is contributing enough of their share. They are seriously considering terminating this market and having the parking lot bring in revenue. Unlike the Ballard Market, the streets in the U District are not available for closing off on Saturday mornings, so the future of this market is debatable. We could be out of a market this summer.

Please, if you care about this oldest neighborhood market inquire at the market information table for more information, come to the meeting and voice your opinion.

Japanese varieties of turnips and spinach from Mair Farm-Taki intrigue my Cooking Assistant.

Soup of the week

I make this soup every spring, and I included a version of it in my book. This time I included horseradish root that I also found at the Mair Farm booth. One good thing about long lines for farmers is that as people wait in line, they talk and they tend to buy more than if they just walked up to the booth and picked out a few thing and paid for them. That's how I bought the horseradish root. It looks like the stick in this picture, and I wasn't sure how it would blend with the turnip greens but I was about to find out in a few hours.

Spring turnips are only here for a few months and though many farmers grow them, none seem to have the Japanese varieties that Taki grows. Spring turnips are so sweet and flavorful when cooked, I could easily have gotten three or four bunches.

Like my asparagus soup, I cooked the vegetables separately and added them near the end of cooking. I wanted the turnips and onions to caramelize in a bit of oil and I wanted to have chunks in an otherwise creamy soup. Another reason was that I'd gotten red potatoes for a vegetable medley soup and then switched soup ideas. What color do you get when you blend red and green? Also, caramelized vegetables always add an unfortunate brownish color--I didn't want to think about gravy while eating this soup. Also I wanted the sweet turnips and potatoes to add character to the soup.

Turnip greens soup is a quick fix. It's best enjoyed after you return from the market becaue turnip greens don't keep. I make this soup a lot while turnips are in season. The recipe always changes a bit and this week I included horseradish. For a main dish, this soup is on the thin side and the truth is, I often eat the entire batch myself since Tom isn't a turnip fan. Oh what he's missing. I don't get why some people have such a resistance to this great vegetable.

Spring Turnip Greens Soup
(Serves 2 to 4)
The smaller you cut the vegetables and onions, the quicker they cook and the quicker you'll be enjoying this delicious soup. I added a handful of quinoa while this soup was cooking to thicken the base of the soup. You could try handful of oats or sprinkle in some rice flour over the top while the soup cooks for a thickener.

3 or 4 spring onions, chopped
2 bunches of turnips, greens and turnips, greens chopped and turnips diced
1 or 2 small red potatoes, small dice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons grated fresh horseradish root (peel root before grating)
1 to 2 cloves fresh garlic, pressed
4 cups water
2 to 3 tablespoon quinoa, rinsed
1/2 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons almond or hazelnut butter
1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
Fresh lemon juice, sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Toasted bread crumbs or croutons for garnish

1.Cook the onions, turnips and potatoes in olive oil until vegetables are slightly browned and caramelized.

2. Place the chopped stems of the turnip greens, garlic, horseradish root, water and quinoa in a large saucepan. (I used the base of my pressure cooker for this.) Simmer the stems and quinoa for about 12 minutes or until quinoa is softened. Add the leaves and cook just a few minutes, until the leaves wilt.

3. Remove from heat and process in a food processor or blender. (Only process a cup at a time in the blender because hot liquid spurts.) Blend in the honey, almond or hazelnut butter and lemon zest. Return to the pot and heat gently stirring in the sauteed vegetables. In a few minutes, add lemon, salt and pepper to taste.

4. Save a little of this soup for grateful patient Cooking Assistants. (Try to avoid including onions in anything for dogs.)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Make an Artist Date in Your Garden

An Artist Date

An artist date is a concept that originated in Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way: A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self. The "date" is a chance to explore something that interests you. Artist's dates along with writing morning pages spark your creativity. I won't go into moring pages in this post, but if you want to know more check both concepts out here.

My first artist date was a local auction. I'd always wanted to go to an auction, and I was just going to observe, but I got caught up in the bidding (it was low end starting bigs). I ended up with this vintage green pitcher from the 1930s that glows under black lights and an antique apple peeler.

I don't need these things but it wasn't really like buying something new and I'm confident that I can one day pass them on to someone else that will enjoy them.

How did going to auction affect my creativity?

The next morning while walking the dogs. I took lots of pictures of things people discarded--a toothbrush on the sidewalk, hand sanitizer covered with dirt in the gutter, and apple cores discovered by my Cooking Assistant.

I wasn't even thinking about the connection between the pictures and the auction at the time. I came across this random sofa in a front yard. I might have thought was so ghetto before but suddenly it became a photo opportunity.

My Cooking Assistant thought the sofa in the front yard was awesome.

In the Garden

I love to dream about plucking English peas, eating juicy tomatoes from the vine and enjoying the arugula in salads, and sure a garden is all that, but there's a lot of work hidden in the details that gardeners don't always talk aobut. That's what I think about when I haven't visited my garden for awhile and I know the weeds have been slowly taking over. I admit the work can intimidate me, so I decided to make an artist date in the garden. I hoped it would help me view the garden in a new way. And who knows? Maybe a spark of creativity would be ignited. That was the plan anyway.

I wanted to have fun, so I set the time limit to two hours and chose starts to plant in containers. I had lettuce, kale, garlic, parsley, spearmint and arugula and two tomato plants that came from Rent's Due Ranch and River Farm.

I planted this tiny kale. It hasn't grown much yet because the weather turned cold and one drawback to container gardening is the soil is more vulnerable to shifting temperature. But on the plus side I find less insects attack the greens and you can line the tops of pots with copper strips to stop slugs.

When you think about it, writing is a lot like gardening. Seeds of a story are planted and with the right care they take shape and grow and soon take on a shape of their own. I like to think if our thoughts all resembled vegetables, emerging stories would look like this baby kale.

While I was in the garden, I took the opportunity to gaze around and I realized one thing that slows me down is my reluctance to pull some of the volunteers that come up every spring--those do nothing plants that are nothing more than eye candy. But maybe we need more eye candy in our lives.

I got out my macro lens for these tiny blue weed flowers that spread farther across our garden each spring. Though they must be weeds, but neither Tom nor I want to pull them. I hate to say that they've become an army now, but even so we still like them and hesitate to pull them until the flowers die. I tried to find out what they're called but I couldn't find any pictures of them. If anyone knows what they're called let me know.

Another thing that I love is these collard flowers that bloomed from collards I planted last fall. The plants suddenly shot up a few weeks ago and bolted. If you eat these flowers, they taste a exactly like collards, and more flowers open up every day. I saw birds eating them today.

Lately I've been thinking about pairing these pretty flowers with my arugula and some kind of fruit vinaigrette. I have some mulberries and some red currents tucked in the freezer and I'm mulling over the possibilities now.

The maintenance or commitment that a garden commands sometimes frightens me. And just because you plant the seeds or plant starts is no guarantee things will go as planned. It's like being a small scale farmer and these young plants could succumb to insects or diseases. It's a risk like farming, but we take it every year anyway.

The two hours went by quickly, and it wasn't long before I was thinking about the next date.

The only thing missing from the date was my Cooking Assistant. Poking his nose through the fence he looks so sad, but don't let that innocent look fool you. Sure he loves the garden but he nibbles on leaves, eats flowers, inhales strawberries and mauls vegetables, even lettuce--and he sometimes digs in the wrong places. Everyone has fun in the garden in their own ways, he tells me.

Why not explore your own garden like an artist? Who knows, magical things might happen.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Coco's Party: Cooking Assistant in Training

Without my trusty Cooking Assistant to snap photos of last week, I talked my daughter into posing her cute dog Coco. We got out this party hat and Coco posed like she was born into the profession.

How about corn on the cob? Who said dogs don't like it?

Jennifer adopted Coco last fall when a pet adoption agency came to Pet Smart in Phoenix. Coco is a young very friendly pit bull that was picked up as a stray. After Coco had puppies Coco was fixed and put up for adoption. Such expressive eyes and she was a perfect poser.

Once Coco realized how much we rewarded posing and waiting, she was eager to pose.

But tell a dog no and ask her to stare at food at the same time and the shoot doesn't always go as planned.

Luckily Coco only had a few licks of the frosting and didn't eat the cake. I think my Cooking Assistant might have been jealous if he knew I'd been posing with another dog.

Coco samples the prop.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Soup Project: Rhubarb-Cherry Dessert Soup with Cashew Cream

We had reservations to fly to Phoenix. Traveling always compels me to use up fresh food I have on hand, so I made this rhubarb dessert soup the night before we left last week.

Four stalks of rhubarb from the produce bin and 1 1/2 cups of thawed pie cherries in a small container, and I was thinking about soup. Could I make a rhubarb soup? I needed one for Monday. (Sorry this is a bit late.) I knew rhubarb and cherries pair well together because I'd made this amazing crisp last year.

This soup is heavenly, but before the recipe, I've got to share a few details about food connections in Phoenix. Who knows you may end up there someday. Before we left I knew I wanted to visit a farmers' market and maybe visit a farm. Here are a few things we did:

Farmers market was our first stop. The Twilight Farmers' Market, a relatively small farmers' market is at the end of a mall and had about ten to twelve vendors. Business was slow and at the information booth we discovered the biggest market, the Roadrunner Park Farmers' Market on Saturdays has about 40 vendors. We found this longer list of farmers' markets at the information booth. The market manager circled the largest market. At this time of year, they sell more processed than fresh foods because summer temperatures in Phoenix can be brutal.

First thing I noticed was a cupcake stand doing a brisk business; beyond the ultra sweet cupcakes, I saw apples on a table. Apples aren't in season now and good local apples are hard to find at markets here, I was curious and when I asked the farmer about his apples, he said he had apple orchards in Washington. I laughed. Every time I go to Phoenix I see Washington apples, but it shocked me to see them at the farmers' market. His faded yellow lab was too adorable, but maybe it's just that I missed my own Cooking Assistant. I bought 4 Pink Lady apples before snapped this picture of his dog resting behind the booth.

Most vendors sold processed products. I bought kale chips from The Health Foodie--a total impulsive splurge purchase, but these chips had the best flavor of any artisan kale chips I've tasted.

The second foodie stop was a trendy mall called Scottsdale Quarter. I spotted this colorful store called It's Sugar and thought the rainbow of candy colors might have something interesting to shoot for my photography class.

What a crazy variety of candy--from candy flavored dental floss to chocolate rocks--everything you never thought of and don't need anyway. A 5-pound gummy bear for $35.00? Where is the nearest dentist for this? I asked if the candy outfits on mannequins were for sale, but they were only made for display. I'm convinced now that America has the quirkiest self-indulgent food trends in the world.

Also in the mall was an advertisement for IPic theaters. I'd never heard of this high end theater chain, so we rode up the escalator to see what they offered. For the right price, to go with your movie you can get wine or 8 types of beer, both on tap, chef-prepared foods and watch the movie in a soft easy chair so comfortable you can put your feet up. Movie tickets for this new theater start at $25 per person. I'm sure after food and wine or beer, your movie experience could be around $100. (Netflix at home seems a great bargain compared to this.)

Across the aisle from the theater was the Champagne and Tea Lounge. The concept of champagne and tea intrigued me, and the white on black sign practically screams exclusive and high-end. When I checked it out later, I learned that this lounge offers a variety of teas paired with "bites" in the afternoon and over 200 kinds of "bubbly" in the evening. The experience here also involves velvet ropes and music, and from the reviews, many people think it's more ghetto than high end. One reviewer called it "straight out of Vegas," another said "it's a pseudo L.A.ish establishment," and many mentioned "too trendy." I think this marketing idea of two different ideas packaged into one only works if you actually have a good product to offer.

The final foodie thing was the Queen Creek Peach Festival put on by Schnepf Farms, a 5000 acre farm that puts on this annual festival every year.

This is the largest farm I've ever visited and I'd actually expected a more farm-like experience--learn about peach trees, who farms the land, how the peaches are grown and all that locavore foodie stuff. But this is a big business farm and what I got was a version of agri-tourism that seemed more in line with a county fair or festival experience complete with the Indian Fry Bread, Polish Dog vendors and the ubiquitious vendor selling magnetic therapy bracelets. Even a furniture vendor had faux-antique furniture out for sale.

Car loads of people flocked to this free event. The dirt lot kicked up dust in the lot that was nearly full. As we passed rows and rows of cars and saw so many families shuffling in, I wondered about the sustainablity of farm events like this. A big tanker filled with water drove around and around spraying water over the dirt lot because the hot wind continually blew dust devils and some morphed into bigger dust clouds that made me think of Timmothy Eagan's The Worst Hard Time, a memorable book about the dustbowl of the 1930s.

We passed a sign that said "relax and breath the fresh country air." It felt a bit like a faux Knots Berry farm when I saw the pony, train and hay rides or maybe it was just a small town carnival feel. We waited in long lines with the sun beating down for everything and at each one, I asked and searched for any information about the farm history or how they grow peaches and farm vegetables in this desert. But the farm seemed almost removed from itself in this place with people everywhere like insects, tossing their plastic bottles and styrofoam plates into big garbage cans. I saw bag after bag carted away by farm employees.

I couldn't find the farm information, then my daughter said, "It's probably online." Sure enough, there it was. Hard to believe someone once thought to grow corn, a crop that sucks up water, in this dry arid place.

The little train that carried about 50 people at a time around the farm tooted every ten minutes or so, and big green tractors pulled up with cartloads of people sitting on hay bales. As these folks got off another load of people took their seats. Is what farmers mean when they say they want agri-tourism? Or is this some weird bastardization of the concept?

We waited in line for peach cinnamon rolls, but they'd sold out; the few peach pies they had left were quickly snatched up as well. "We have a baker rolling out the dough. More will be available in an hour," a woker shouted at the people in line. I felt like we were at a feeding frenzy; shelves with farm grown products filled shelves that morning, only to be swiped clean by noon with a few lonely stray bottles of peach syrup or preserves scattered about.

Was it the "local food" or "free event" that made so many people, especially families, come to this farm? Cases of peaches went flying out of there and one worker mentioned that Saturday had more farm visitors, many out for a real farm like experience, others came for the food and entertainment.

We bought a few peaches to take on the plane, then walked over to the tasting room where we sampled many of the farm products--from peach gummy bears and rings, to salsas, to canned and dried peaches and preserves.

I've visited many farms and farm stores, but this was the first sighting of gumballs as value-added farm products. A cool orange color. Is this an interesting twist on "farm fresh" products? Or a huge deviation? One of the things I like about farms is they're all different and maybe there is room for farms that offer peach gumballs and gummy bears. Is candy the best way to expose kids to a farm? Just wondering.

The rhubarb and peach preserves caught my eye. I've never paired peaches and rhubarb but I'd bet flavorwise Northwest pie cherries or even raspberries and rhubarb have more to offer than peaches and rhubarb. We didn't get a taste here either, the preserve samples were gone, so we moved on.

This annual peach festival was interesting but it made me wonder if this is what farmers mean when they talk about agri-tourism? We looked everywhere for farm information about how they grow the peaches in the desert. We found farm T-shirts but no postcards or even basic farm information.

I appreciate that all farms are different, but I like to get away from crowds, not feel the pressures of people and lines everywhere I turn. Plus as I watched farm workers cart out bags and bags of garbage, I wondered how much plastic waste is generated by events like this?

Back at the airport, I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of OZ--click my heels and I'll go home.

I love my farmers' market that seems more about community than entertainment. Somehow peach gumballs just isn't right. I appreciate Rockridge Orchards where I bought my fresh rhubarb and Grouse Mountain Farm where I got my cherries and froze them last summer--working farms, not big business farms that cater to agri-tourism and have long forgotten to share their farm stories.

Traveling sometimes makes me really appreciate the treasures in my own back yard! Three cheers for Northwest markets, farms and produce!

Here's the recipe:

Rhubarb-Cherry Dessert Soup with Cashew Cream
(Serves 4)

4 stalks of rhubarb, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups pitted pie cherries
1 vanilla bean, slit down the middle
1/2 to 3/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 to 2 cups water
Salt to taste

Place all ingredients except salt in a sauce pan. Simmer for about 20 minutes or until rhubarb breaks down and mixture becomes thicker. Make Cashew Cream while soup simmers.

Cashew Cream
(Makes 1 cup)
This dreamy decadent-tasting cashew cream can be mixed in or drizzled across the top. It has an intriguing texture that can be quite addictive.

3/4 cup raw unsalted cashews
1 cup apple juice (I used Rockrodge Orchards)
Pinch of salt
1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice

Soak cashews in apple juice overnight. Puree, then add a pinch of salt and lemon juice to taste.

My Cooking Assistant didn't go to Phoenix but he loved posing with this soup the day we returned. I could just imagine him telling the dogs where he stayed about his modeling career and his kitchen duties.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Soup Project: Garlic-Asparagus Soup with Smokey Blue Cheese

I started dreaming up this asparagus soup recipe before I knew whether my main ingredient would actually be at the market on Saturday.

Earlier in the week, All Recipes had sent out a link for their asparagus recipes. That started me dreaming about asparagus and combining ingredients, but the truth is I'd been thinking about asparagus ever since I heard asparagus was in season (and in trouble) in California. I get worried about our food supply whenever the weather turns sour or I hear a crop may be in trouble elsewhere.

Anyway, I was happy to see the market sign that said Canales Farm from eastern Washington was back at the market. The only thing Canalas Farm brings to the market is asparagus in the spring, now it's all certified organic.

The asparagus was bundled in 1 pound bundles, but the price had shot up to $5 this year. I stopped and stared at the $5 sign--up by a dollar a pound since last year. My $100 food budget shrinks daily and I suddenly felt hunger pangs. My visions of buying two pounds of asparagus suddenly morphed into how can I make one pound work for two in this recipe? But if you're thinking of trying this strategy yourself to save $5, don't do it because as soon as I counted the asparagus tips, I ended up buying another half pound because the roasted tips and smokey blue cheese make this soup into a culinary masterpiece. I wonder if someone hasn't already thought it up.

Asparagus as one of those vegetables totally worth the price so pony up the asking price and don't go cheap with asparagus. Consider buying this vegetable a splurge, if you are working with a food budget.

Back at home, I scanned the internet for inspiration but the recipes were mostly all the same--chicken stock, cream, asparagus, lemon,--not bad, just not inspired so why copy them?

Next, I checked Jill Nussinow's The New Fast Food and Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day for inspiration. Jill's recipes made me want to use my pressure cooker for this recipe, and one of Heidi's recipes made me think about adding cheese. (Heidi had another one with Gorgonzola cheese from an older blog post that also caught my eye). I ended up flipping through my own book and I decided to rework my Garlic-Asparagus Soup recipe.

A Word About Ingredients

As I gathered the ingredients for a group photo, I realized it's important to mention that I tend use mostly fresh ingredients. Notice how I included a real lemon and fresh garlic in the photo. These ingredients can also be found in bottles and jars, but I've never used those kinds of processed products. Bottled garlic, lemon, lime, or ginger never tastes the same as fresh versions and in fact, the bottled ginger at PCC Natural Markets and probably Whole Foods and Trader Joe's too, comes from China, so check labels before you put any in your cart. And really, how good can bottled lemon juice, garlic or ginger be? If you substitute processed for fresh because it's convenient, it my just bite you in the end and will not improve your recipe outcome.

The shallots came from Let Us Farm, another favorite returning farm vendor at the market; the brown rice miso came from Southriver Miso, my favorite miso maker. I forgot to buy mushrooms at the marketon Saturday, so the organic crimini mushrooms and the lemon came from a natural foods store.

I mentioned that Heidi's soup recipe made me consider cheese, but the recipe in her book listed cheddar cheese and I wanted a power player with a lot of flavor yet a compliment to asparagus. Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue came to mind. Smoked for 16 hours over hazelnut shells, this cheese has quintessential Northwest spring flavor written all over it. You can find this savory smokey blue cheese at PCC Natural Markets or Whole Foods. I consider it another splurge for the week.

Cheese and other dairy products give me a stuffy nose, so I usually leave them out of my recipes nowdays, but I've been known to suffer for good cheese and this is one of those times.

My Cooking Assistant willfully suffers for any cheese. He wanted to help out with the photos, but he could barely hold himself back from taking a bite of this excellent cheese.

See this special paper I got at Rogue Creamery last summer when I visited the shop in southern Oregon? I wrap all my cheese in these waxed papers now because good cheese should never be kept in plastic.

The soup is made with pressure cooked pureed asparagus stalks and potatoes, but you could easily just simmer the potatoes and stalks in a saucepan. I dry fried the mushrooms (cooked them in a skillet with no oil), sautéed the shallots, and roasted the asparagus for this soup.

It's fun to treat an ingredient like royalty.

Here is the recipe:

Garlic-Asparagus Soup with Smokey Blue Cheese
(Serves 4)
A head of garlic sounds like a lot of garlic, but it blends well in this recipe, in fact you barely notice it because it blends so well with the other ingredients. (Do not substitute garlic from jar or or lemon from a bottle.) The recipe in my cookbook also lists almond butter and a carrot. The almond butter is for a rich mouth feel; the carrot is for color. Those ingredients are replaced with a small garnet yam and Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue Cheese.

1 1/2 pounds of asparagus, tough ends removed (snap off ends where they naturally break)
3 or 4 Yukon Gold potatoes, dark blemishes removed, washed and diced
1 head garlic, cloves separated, peeled and pressed or minced
4 to 5 cups water
3 to 4 cups sliced crimeni mushrooms
1 to 2 tablespoons canola oil
1 1/2 cup diced shallots, onions or leeks
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped Mama Lil's peppers or green salsa (optional)
2 tablespoons rolled oats
1 small garnet yam, washed and diced small
1/4 cup white miso
Fresh lemon juice to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 to 1/2 cup crumbled Rogue Creamery Smoky Blue Cheese

1. Break 3 inches of asparagus tips from the stalks and set aside. Break the stalks into smaller pieces and place them with the potatoes, garlic and four cups of water in a pressure cooker. Reserve the remaining water to add later. Lock the lid in place and bring to pressure. Cook for 2 minutes. Let pressure reduce naturally, and work on the other ingredients while pressure reduces.

2. Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, stir and cook until they lose their moisture. Cook for about a minute longer, then remove from heat and place in a bowl. Put the skillet back on the burner, add shallots, peppers and oil. Stir and cook until shallots become soft and slightly caramelized. Remove from heat and place with the mushrooms.

3. Preheat oven to 350 F. Lay asparagus tips in a baking pan. Drizzle with a little canola or olive oil and roast until tender--about 10 minutes. Remove from oven; set aside.

4. Puree the cooked potatoes and asparagus. Reserve 1 cup and return the remainder to pressure cooker and add rolled oats and diced garnet yam. (This is where you see the value of size; the smaller the chunks of yam, the sooner they'll cook and you'll get your soup.) Cook for about 10 minutes.

5. Combine the miso with the remaining water. Blend well. When the yams are soft, add the cooked shallots, mushrooms, and asparagus tips and gently heat for about a minute. Add the miso and then a squeeze or two of lemon, and a dash of salt and pepper to taste.

5. Garnish with Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue Cheese.

As you can see, I forgot to garnish the soup before I snapped this picture, but it's best not to tease a Cooking Assistant twice in one day. Just don't forget to add it to your soup because it is the crown jewel of this recipe. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Farm-to-Fork Dinner at Whispering Winds Farm

I'm really excited about this farm-to-fork event at Whispering Winds Farm in Skagit Valley on July 16th.

After 30 years of organic gardening, Char and Doug Byde started Whispering Winds Farm in 2004 with a goal to offer reasonably priced organic produce to the community. In 2005 they started a seasonal CSA. Check out the organic vegetables pictured on the flyer. Those vibrant specimens all came from the farm.

This farm-to-fork dinner is an old-fashioned casual get-to-know-your-farm-neighbors event, with music, door prizes and delicious food fresh from the fields. Tickets are available for $45.00 each.

I know July might sound too far away right now; but once the weather warms up here in the Northwest, July is just around the corner.

I met with farmer Char Byde last week and she gave me the low down on all the important details for this event, some of which are still getting organized like who will supply the hard cider or wine. I was hoping Rockridge Orchards could supply the hard cider but due to a soggy spring, Rockridge Orchards could run out of hard cider before summer's end. (A story for another time, I think.)

I digress. The feast that will be served in stages at 4, 5 and 6pm. Here's the menu so far:

Halibut patties (grilled, I think)

Carrots with Fennel and Hazelnuts

Romanesco with Northwest Berry Vinegar

Strawberry shortcake

Hard cider, wine or lemonade (still in the planning stages)

The vegetable recipes are adapted from my book, which will be sold there. Devra Gartenstein author of 2 amazing vegetarian cookbooks, host of the monthy Humble Feast dinners, cooking instructor at PCC Natural Markets, chef at the Patty Pan Grill (at the Ballard Market) and blogger at Quirky Gourmet-- a solid resume for a farm chef.

Who doesn't love the Patty Pan Grill--the best tamales, veggie quesadillas and salsa at the market?

I put a few flyers for the event on the table at the University District market and as I set them down, I realized this was the perfect place for it because people who shop the markets look for these kinds of events. I think they need to be smaller and I can probably put them at all the markets.

I set Whispering Winds farm event announcement next to a tiny flyer for Nash Huber's barn dance this coming weekend. (See it in yellow under the lady bug?) That's another fun event to check out for this coming weekend. My advice for the barn dance is get there early because it will be packed.

Speaking of barns, this is where the farm dinner will be held. Our mutual friends, Sheila and Brad Zahnow took pictures of Char and Doug's farm and when they submitted photos to my book editors, they picked the barn. I wrote a sidebar called "Blogging Farmers," about Char and Doug's farm and last summer I got to see the farm in person. That's when Char mentioned throwing this dinner party for the community. It was just a pipe dream then.

It's interesting the way you meet some people and it's like you've known them forever. That's how how I feel about Char-- her sense of humor, sense of ethics and honesty and empathy for all the animals she takes in and cares for.

"How many dogs do you have Char?" I'd asked her recently.

"Three," she'd said. Then she told me about her chickens, the newest additon to her farm brood.

Check this post about the rescue chickens that Brad and Sheila gave her.

Whispering Winds Farm is a quirky organic vegetable farm, among all the dairy farms in Skagit Valley, and Char does most of the farming and packing up the CSA boxes. Doug has a full time job in Marysville and he does a lot of work evenings and weekends.

Speaking of the weekend, I can't think of a better way to spend a summer weekend than to attend this farm-to-fork dinner. I hope lots of people come out to Skagit Valley to meet the proud owners and farmers at this fairly new organic vegetable farm.

Tickets for the dinner are available through Char, so call or email her. She decided not to go with a middleman like brown paper tickets because they take a share of the ticket and boost the price.

Did I mention you can do self-guided farm tours at this event? Meet alpacas, rabbits, cats and dogs. Oh and I'll be there and I'm also putting together some cool gift baskets for door prizes. I've got a cookbook basket, a local authors' basket and I'm thinking about creating a local wine and chocolate basket and Char is gathering giveaways as prizes, too.

We'll do our best to insure the sun is out, but rain or shine, this is one event to put on your calendars. Hope to see you there!