About judyramey

For decades, the kitchen tool I used most often was the microwave. But one day on impulse I signed up for a cooking class. What an eye-opener! Who knew that pretty much the whole history of the globe could be traced through food? Who knew how much love and artistry went into producing it? Welcome to my explorations! I'm a beginner, so I hope you'll join this conversation about the world's beautiful foods!

Cuba Day Six: Back to Havana, by way of the secret garden of Pelegrin

Settling in on our minibus for the trip back to Havana, I see on our itinerary that our next stop is “Project of Sustainable Agriculture and Food Production Pelegrín.” I figure that we will see another organic farm like the ones we’ve visited over the last few days. So wrong!

Here’s our driver Nafal relaxing on one side of the front porch of the Pelegrín house, and a shot of the even more exuberant other side. More going on here than agriculture! But before we explore the other surprises of Pelegrín, let’s take a look at the gardens.

The raised beds of vegetables contained by borders of roof tiles show us once more that the production of beautiful food can itself be beautiful. Close by, we find a coconut tree weighted with fruit. Would you like to try it? Oh, yes! Suddenly somebody is up the tree, and the next thing we know, a machete is out, a hard nut has been topped for each of us, and we are sipping coconut water—the slightly cloudy thin liquid from the center of the fruit, with its fresh herbal fragrance—right from the shell. Here’s Alex enjoying his. 

We return to the central cluster of walkways, two-story thatched cabanas, patios, and workshops. The creator of patio Pelegrín has helpfully provided  signs to help us explore the compound: dance, literature, debate, music, theater—a network of workshops, nested on this small property, for local residents to cultivate their artistic and intellectual  interests.

Here is a group of “elderly” women (most of them appear younger than I am) practicing the craft of constructing handbags; I wish that I had gotten a picture of their product, and even more I wish that I had bought one!—They were extremely well-constructed and stylish.

The creator of these delights (he would insist that it was a local community effort) is Mario Pelegrín Pozo, painter, ceramic artist, and cultural promoter, shown here with one of his own works (purchased by one of us, I should add!).

We lingered in the gallery with its paintings, ceramics,  and handmade furniture. See that painting over Raj’s shoulder?—it will soon be hanging over my desk! (I’ll tell you more about Raj in a future post, but for now,  check out Generation Food Project, his current movie project with Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams.) We relaxed over a cup of coffee in the café literario. We wandered around the grounds taking in the maze of artworks and thatched structures. I wish I could spend more time with you exploring the birdcages and rabbit pens, the grain mill, the visiting hawk who hangs out on the front porch,  the fountain, the well, the rescued alligator in his hog-wire cage (big!—soon to be picked up for a return trip to the wild). But it is time for lunch!

And what a lunch. It will be a while, here at home, before I can really enjoy an avocado, or a mango, or a banana; the exotic warm aroma and rich flesh of the just-picked fruit still has me seduced!

As it happened, it was also Melanie’s twenty-third birthday, so her dad Peter staged a little celebration for her. (The family is Greek; Melanie is a vegan chef, and Peter is a contractor who specializes in building diners. What a great pair to travel with!—The morning that I was sick, Peter brought a nice breakfast to my room to tide me over while the group was off on a tobacco farm; he waved off my thanks with “I’m a good mother.”)

After our morning’s dalliance in this magical place, we aren’t easy to organize, but eventually Zoe and Jesús get us back on the bus headed for Havana, where we meet with Juan José León from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Sr. León is a crisp antidote to our morning’s artistic meanderings; a small farmer turned revolutionary, he has a long memory and a ready command of facts and figures. He sketched in for us, through the eyes of the farmers, the tumultuous early days of the Revolution in 1959.

The agrarian reform laws of 1959 nationalized and redistributed large land holdings—those owned by Cubans (including the Castro family, by the way)  as well as those owned by foreign individuals and companies—but allowed each owner to keep 400 hectares of land. (The seizure of property owned by American citizens led the U.S. in 1960 to impose the embargo on Cuba that continues to this day.) Small farmers were allotted the land they were working, up to 67 hectares. (Why 67?—It turns out that there’s a measurement larger than a hectare, a “caballeria,” which consists of about 13.4 hectares. So, five “caballerias” equals 67 hectares.) Also, over 100,000 other families received at least one hectare (2.5 acres) or more. About 60% of the nationalized land remained in state hands and about 40% was redistributed to land-owners and small farmers.

But, he said, the large land-owners didn’t take advantage of the 400 hectares they were allotted, and instead of farming, conspired against the Revolution. So in 1963 the state nationalized those 400-hectare plots as well; 80% of this land was held by the government and 20%  was distributed directly to farmers. The state organized the lands it retained into the large state farms that we have heard of before, worked by farmers as employees of the state. (After the fall of the Soviet Union, these farms would be broken up into the UBPCs like Alamar that we visited on the first day, which hold their lands “in usufruct”—basically, a long-term lease—from the state.) Of the farmers who became land owners, some chose to consolidate their lands with others to form a cooperative. (In this case, they gave up individual ownership by selling the land to the cooperative and becoming a share-holder in the coop.) Other farmers retained ownership of their land but formed cooperatives to work together on the logistics of farming (like El Paraíso that we visited on day five). The “revolutionary process” of land distribution continues; new laws passed in 2008 created a means to redistribute unused or poorly administered land. A farmer or coop can now get a 13-hectare grant of such land (more or less a “caballeria”), and can ask for even more, up to 40 hectares.

But how do these people sell their crops? Sr. León explained that the state purchases 100% of “trade” crops like tobacco, cacao beans, and coffee. In addition, farmers are required to sell 80% of certain categories of produce to the state, but can sell the remaining 20% on the free market. The restricted categories cover 21 products:  among tubers, for instance, malangas, sweet potatoes, yams, and potatoes; in vegetables, onions, garlic, pepper, cucumber, and tomatoes; in fruits, mango, guava, citrus, papaya, and pineapple; in grains, rice, corn, and garbanzos; and in dairy, milk. There’s a lot on this list! (The state’s 80% of these products covers what Sr. León calls “social consumption”—the needs of hospitals, schools, day-care centers, old-folks homes, etc.) For products not on the list, farmers can freely sell whatever they produce. Also, farmers can contract to sell directly to tourist operations like hotels.

But it turns out that small-scale urban agriculture operates outside this system. (Lots of exceptions!—It appears that Cuba is trying any number of different models these days.) Growers who live within a 10-kilometer radius of a city can freely sell 100% of their produce. Tomorrow we will visit a bursting handful of gardens like these.

We have had a long day!—But we have one more stop before we head back to the hotel: the Food Conservation Project “Vilda and Pepe.” For fifteen years now, the couple (Vilda trained as a chemist in animal nutrition, Pepe as a mechanical engineer) has been working tirelessly to teach Cubans how to preserve food.

Remember that, when the Soviet Union disintegrated starting in 1989, within two years Cuba had lost its main trading partner and 80% of its trade—trade that included much of the Cuban food supply. Vilda gave us a vivid picture of the impact of this loss on the Cuban dinner table. The calorie intake of the average Cuban adult fell from about 3,000 calories a day down to 1,800 a day. Protein intake dropped from 90 grams a day to 45. During this harsh period, Vilda and Pepe drew on their backgrounds in nutrition and engineering to learn how to preserve food for themselves, and then decided to share what they had learned in their own kitchen.

They use natural techniques and methods that work in ordinary Cuban kitchens—solar drying and dehydration, fermentation and pickling in vinegar, pasteurization. They developed a simple sterile sealer for bottles and jars from “found” materials that can by copied easily (easily, at least, by the endlessly resourceful Cuban people). They developed tasty recipes and offered classes for housewives, kids, and food producers. Over time, they attracted funding from national and international NGOs and other sources to help them scale up their operation.

Their outreach combines face-to-face approaches with extensive media efforts. Volunteer “promotores” take the participatory training and then fan out into the community to show their neighbors the techniques; children come into their “test kitchen” for classes once a month, learning hands-on how to prepare healthful meals and preserve produce from their family gardens. Vilda and Pepe also have created something of a media empire—they have a weekly half-hour radio show and a publishing house that distributes their books and multimedia products. They now reach 15,000 people face-to-face, and over radio and TV, about 1.5 million people per year. Their services are free; the media sales help fund the organization.

Their efforts allow farmers to add value to their produce and enable people to enjoy seasonal foods like fruits across the year. And remember that Cuba lies in the middle of “hurricane alley”—in 2008, for instance, they had two hurricanes within two days that destroyed over 750,000 pounds of the food supply. Thanks to Vilda and Pepe, many Cubans can now rely on a small  pantry of preserved fruits and vegetables to help them through such crises. To learn more about their work, visit Food Conservation Project “Vilda and Pepe.” (It’s in Spanish; use “translate this page” in Google search).

Cuba Day Five: Paradise, and the question of owning land

The fate of Day Four: If you have been following my trip to Cuba, you may be wondering what happened to Day Four. I spent it at hotel Rancho San Vicente in beautiful Viñales, in bed nursing a terrible cold! But during one of my few forays out of my room, I did manage to confirm a point made by our excellent guide Jesús as we drove west into the mountains of the province of Pinar del Río. Although the land-line telephone system extends throughout the province, the electric grid does not; much of the province is powered by solar panels. Here’s the array that keeps the lights on at our hotel. (Now back to bed.)

So!—Day Five.

Today we visted El Paraíso (“paradise” in English), a family farm terraced along a hillside overlooking a valley checkered with pastures and more farms. Here Wilfredo, the head of the family, welcomes us, translated by our trusty Jesús.  (I didn’t get Wilfredo’s last name, unfortunately.) You may remember that a few days ago we visited Alamar UBPC (“basic unit of cooperative production,” a farm on state-owned land run by a cooperative of workers). El Paraíso on the other hand is a privately owned family farm, organized with others like it in a private “credit and service cooperative” (the acronym in Spanish is CCS). CCS farms have grown to represent about 17% of all Cuban farms. El Paraíso is also a Finca Agroecologica education center and demonstration farm.

The terraces stepping down the hillside, bordered and contained by hand-stacked stones, are silent testimony to the time and labor that it takes to draw these orderly ranks of crops out of the land. Here we see a row of habichuelas, a long flat green bean; the interplanting in this field includes scallions, squash, and several other vegetables, as well as bright flowers (to attract pests away from the crops). Drip irrigation keeps the crops healthy with as little water as possible (no mean feat in this very hot climate).

The son-in-law of the family, Tony, took a moment on our tour to show us some of the older tools still in use on the farm. The sugar-cane shredder, constructed from bits and pieces from a tractor and a couple of other sources, reduces the knife-edged sugar-cane leaves to pulp and channels off the juice. The coffee-bean husker (a ubiquitous tool in Cuba, it turns out) breaks up the outer husk to release the coffee bean. (At one point Jesús—a formidable dancer—showed us a dance move based on the action of pounding the coffee beans with the pestle of the husker. Where was my camera!) And Tony showed us how to operate the hand-mill, used to grind corn and other grains. These tools, like the terrace rockeries and the thatched roofs of the cabanas and outbuildings, show me once again how the Cubans manage to create both grace and utility out of just the materials they have on hand.

After a delicious lunch on the farm, we headed off to the headquarters of the Moncada UBPC, where we talked to Rafael Barrios, the head of production for the farm. It was pouring rain once again!—Here we see some members of the cooperative, using probably the most efficient modes of transportation for the weather.

Unlike the Alamar UBPC that we visited earlier, with its diverse crops of vegetables and herbs, the main crops for external trade here at Moncada are the traditional ones of tobacco and coffee. Of its 204 hectares, 42 are devoted to coffee and 42 to tobacco; 64 hectares are devoted to “self-consumption”—essentially, gardens for the families of the 86 associates who make up the coop membership—and the rest is left in uncultivated woodlands, where they raise animals. In addition to selling under contract to the government, they can sell some of their products to people outside the coop, and sometimes family members supplement the family income with jobs in the town.

Sr. Barrios helped us understand better what it was like for the farm workers to go from employee to coop member. Like Alamar, the Moncada UBPC began in 1993 with the breakup of a large state-owned farm, and the workers on that farm became the associates of the UBPC. Moncada also holds its lands in usufruct (essentially, a long lease) from the state. The biggest challenge in the transition, he said, was that before, the government answered for everything, but afterwards the workers had to organize themselves and manage their own operation. With the right to own, if not the land itself, the means of production as well as the fruits of their labors, Sr. Barrios said, the workers now feel like true owners. As part of their annually negotiated contract with the government, the coop buys a “technological package” that includes everything (down to machetes!) needed to develop the crops, and crop insurance as well. Over the course of the year they keep track of costs and production levels, and after the harvest, more productive members get a larger share of the sales proceeds.  The farm has done well and is always growing.

I admire the energy and intelligence of everybody we’ve met at the UBPCs—but the Texan in me balks. Am I hearing whispers from one of my stubborn peasant forebears? Do I have a primal fear of being turfed out of my hut by some inscrutable landlord?—I would want to own my land. Thus I was glad to discover that the Cuban system, among its several models, has a place for private family-owned farms like El Paraíso.

On our way back to the hotel at the end of the day, we stopped briefly in Viñales, where I caught this classic car parked in s street-scape of lovely rain-washed colors!

Cuba Day Three: Biosphere and the lotus eater of Las Terrazas

Today we set out west of Havana to Las Terrazas to visit the Biosphere, a UNESCO biological reserve. What beautiful countryside! We arrived at the eco-station just in time to be pelted by rain, but we were able to ignore it with the help of a drink, some Afro-Cuban music, and a fact-filled introduction to the reserve.

The Biosphere consists of 25,000 hectares (a hectare is about two and a half acres) in three nested zones—a nucleus of natural reserve (no people!), surrounded by an ecologically managed buffer zone, in turn surrounded by protected zone of managed resources including family farms. In the nucleus, the reserve boasts 900 different species of plants, 131 species of birds (50% of them migratory), 32 species of reptiles, and thousands and thousands of species of insects. Only large mammals and other fauna are considered under-populated by the standards of bio-diversity; 75% of them are bats. (At sunset that evening, I passed up the opportunity, which I gather comes up daily, to watch a swarm of bats sweep out of the caves near our hotel for their nightly feeding. I was coming down with a cold; I faded, I’m sorry to say.)

The scientists at the reserve are working to repair ecological damage done over centuries.  In the colonial period, coffee growers stripped the area of its forests to develop their vast fincas; now the scientists are replanting with over 130 species of native trees and other vegetation. They also have fish farms that support 21 different species, 13 of them native to the region and two found only in the reserve.

They also are working to build agro-biodiversity. The farmers in the reserve live in the village of Las Terrazas (constructed for them when the reserve was created) and have farm plots in the surrounding hills.  They contribute seeds from their crops to a strictly controlled seed bank and exchange seeds both among themselves and with farmers in other regions. The scientists keep track of the farmers who are growing indigenous crops following traditional techniques and make sure to collect seeds from them. The seed bank ensures that these crops can be planted year after year, and provides resources to help repair the crop damage done by hurricanes and other natural disasters that lash Cuba.

Once again, we found that these agro-ecological practices had a human heart and social mission. The project “Mi plato y yo” (“My recipe and myself”) collects recipes, often handed down from grandparents to grandchildren, of indigenous foods prepared in traditional ways. The published collections tell the stories both of the dishes and of the cooks who contributed them—a great way to celebrate the traditions of Cuban food preparation and tempt cooks to try the techniques of these elders in their own kitchens.

Time for lunch!—We wound our way through the village to Eco-Restaurant El Romero, “gourmet of the Cuban ecological cuisine.” This improbable gem is the brainchild of Tito Nuñez Gudás, vegetarian chef, forager, and food artist (seen here against a backdrop of the wetlands and fields where he forages many ingredients for his menu). We started with pickled lotus root, fresh and delicate. Following that, we had soup (several different kinds for each table; mine was a lovely brothy vegetable soup, and others had cold pumpkin soup or black bean soup). Our main-course plates were a buffet unto themselves—a torta, herbed brown rice, a taco, several kinds of vegetables, all artfully plated (my notes are a collection of superlatives barely readable through splashes and smears of the meal itself). We ended on a high note with a chocolate pudding served in a little leaf boat. We puzzled over what gave it its depth and complexity but ended up having to ask:  some pumpkin, some peanuts. How did they do that?—It was the best chocolate ever!

All of this carefully prepared and beautifully presented food emerged from the small kitchen in the corner with its fresh herbs and shelves of handmade condiments, where the chef and servers handily choreographed our meal. But where did Tito find vegetarian chefs of this caliber?—Locally, of course, trained under his careful eye. Describing the first reaction of his pork-loving Cuban community to meals made only of plants, he laughed as he pushed his hands away from himself in the universal gesture of refusal. But now he works with the schools to explain the fare and trains students as interns to learn the preparations. Changing the diet of his community, one leaf at a time!

Note: There won’t be a “Cuba day four;” the cold I felt coming on today arrived copiously by night-time, and I spent the whole next day—our first in the beautiful mountain town of Viñales—in bed in a Claritan-induced smog. What did I miss?—Primarily a trip to a tobacco farm, which of everything we had on the agenda interested me the least (my swampy ex-smoker lungs would not have been amused). So, on to day five!

Cuba Day Two: From commodity crops to local sustainable farming

Today we started off at the Antonio Nuñez Jimenez Foundation for Nature and Humanity (the acronym for the name in Spanish is FANJ), an NGO with a very broad agenda related to culture and the environment. Nuñez Jimenez, who created FANJ in 1994 at the age of 71, was both a revolutionary (here he is with Che Guevara and Che’s daughter) and a professor of geology, a scientist with an international reputation. And, like Darwin, Shackleton, and others before him, he was a scientist-adventurer—In 1987-88, he set off with a group to cross South America to Cuba by canoe, following the Amazon River east and the Orinoco north, then across the treacherous open waters of the Caribbean to landfall in Cuba. Our guide Handy (I didn’t get his last name) showed us the very canoe that he paddled, as well as a map of his (arduous!) route. (He was then 64 years old. I am now 64 years old. Would it be sullen of me to point out that I most likely couldn’t paddle a canoe across the street?)

At any rate, after Handy’s tour of the foundation museum and library, we met with Maria Caridad Cruz, coordinator of the FANJ Program for Local Sustainable Development. Yesterday we had learned about Cuba’s early commitment to commodity crops (sugar, coffee, tobacco), the collapse of those markets, and the emergence of other models like farming cooperatives. Walking through the fields of the UBPC Alamar, we had seen one example of smaller-scale, highly diversified farming. Now Maria sketched out for us the whole  FANJ vision of what food production in Cuba could become.

At the most local level, FANJ helps people learn how to grow family gardens. And with 75% of Cuba’s people now living in urban areas, many without a plot of land for a garden, FANJ also shows people how to build gardens on their rooftops. The gardeners aspire to follow the ideals of organic gardening and permaculture: close the circle. They collect rainwater in cisterns, filter “gray water” from their sinks and showers, re-use building materials, recycle and compost, use small animals (chickens, rabbits) and animal waste, and (in the most thorough-going cases) use dry toilets and convert human waste to usable garden fertilizer. (Seriously. More on this later.)

These family gardens produce vegetables, medicinal and culinary herbs, fruits, and flowers —and produce them prodigiously!  FANJ also offers a program about how to sell their excess produce. And FANJ supports seed exchanges, both for family gardeners and for larger-scale farmers.

FANJ’s programs are small but growing. They now have 25 functioning groups in seven (out of Cuba’s 15) provinces, and they have 120 promoters (“promodores”) around the country, getting into the smaller communities with their mission and programs.

But a word about the mission. Yes, they want the Cuban people to grow food to enrich their diets and supplement their incomes. But they have a broader social mission: to develop active citizens who are working together to solve problems at the local level.  They aim to involve whole families (farming has historically been a male occupation), and to encourage people to have a lively Interchange about their practices, their problems and solutions, and their dreams. I will return to this theme later; I came to realize by the end of my trip that it was really the cornerstone of what I was learning in Cuba.

Next we visited the Cuban Association of Agricultural and Forestry Technicians (ACTAF) where we talked to Fernando Funes, the Coordinator of Agro-ecological Projects. Fernando took us on a personal journey through the landscape that we had been visiting. At first his agricultural education had been very specialized, in the spirit of the Green Revolution; he studied pastures and cattle exclusively. Then the blow fell:  the USSR collapsed. He likes statistics; he mentioned that during the early part of the Special Period, 100,000 cattle died. He added that he himself lost 25 pounds. (This is not a large man.) People felt the raw fear of not being able to feed their families.

At that point, people began to adopt early forms of agro-ecological techniques. They kept poultry, pigs, and honeybees; they applied biological fertilizers and manures, used nematodes, minimized fuel usage, and more. They incorporated small animals into their food system, using plant byproducts to feed the animals and animal byproducts to feed the plants. He led the way in incorporating forestry systems and pasture systems into overall food production, use of inter-crop planting, and so on. At the beginning of the process, he told us, it took eight units of energy to produce one unit of food; by the third year, it took only three units of energy to produce four units of food.

The process of revising the system continues; he told us that under the new guidelines developed under Raul Castro, people can now claim unused or fallow land to farm under the “usufruct” system (basically, long-term leases from the state). But he pointed out that Cuba still imports at least 50% of its food. (Some of our informants put the figure at 80%.)

We will revisit many of these themes, and see wonderful examples of these processes at work, over our remaining days. But we also took some time in the afternoon to savor beautiful Havana! We first walked through the Plaza de Armas, with its graceful spaces. Then, on the way to the Plaza de la Catedral, we passed a building that was unfinished, but its blank concrete facade had been brought to life by a mural of the society of Old Havana. And finally we visited the plaza of the cathedral, with its beautiful facade speaking of the centuries of Spanish life that had unfolded here.

But we weren’t done for the day!—We had the evening free, so we decided to have dinner at a paladar, a privately-owned restaurant typically located in the owner’s family home. We found one nearby (somehow; not my doing, certainly) and just showed up (no reservations). (Sidebar: my greatest regret is that I didn’t get any good photos of the ’50’s American cars, startlingly well-preserved, that we saw everywhere—though I have to add, mixed in with Priuses, BMWs, and other contemporary models. Well, there will be a next trip.)  But what a treat the paladar turned out to be!! We ate extremely well; turtle, shrimp, chicken, mango, black beans and rice, and more. Once again, Cuban cuisine proved to be very flavorful but not spicy-hot, carefully prepared and served in generous (very generous!) portions. Presiding over our meal is trip coordinator Zoe Brent of Food First. (Thank you, Zoe, for helping us discover this wonderful place to eat!)

 

 

Learning from Cuba: Agro-ecology, urban farming, and making do

Hemingway, Fidel, Bay of Pigs, the missile crisis, Venceremos, Marielitos, Elián—the threads of so many stories of Cuba are woven through the fabric of my own life! I was just eleven years old, catching my first glimpse of a world wider than Kingsville, Texas, when on New Year’s Day 1959 Batista fled the country and Castro’s revolutionary forces took over. And now, more than a half-century later, I have finally visited beautiful Cuba. My tour, a joint offering from Food First, Global Exchange/Reality Tours, and Amistur, focused on Cuba’s developing agro-ecological food system. I learned so much!—Over the next few posts I’d like to take you with me to the foundations, farms, neighborhoods, and small enterprises that we visited, and introduce you to some of the Cubans whose labors are building the system.

Day One: Sunday July 8th

Actually, Day One was supposed to be Saturday July 7th, but we spent it in the Cancun airport waiting for our Cubana flight; we finally go to our Havana hotel at about 5:00 Sunday morning. So we dumped our early Sunday-morning plans and slept in.

But we re-grouped around 11:00 and set off for UBPC Alamar, in the suburbs of Havana. A “UBPC” is a “basic unit of cooperative production,” one of several organizational structures of farms in Cuba. The story of the origins of the UBPCs brings together a number of themes that will come up again and again as we learn about Cuban agriculture. The story, like so many others here, is a story of cataclysm and recovery. Up until 1989, Cuban farming was organized into large state-owned agro-industrial “green revolution”  farms that relied on expensive heavy machinery and large amounts of imported chemical fertilizers to produce mono-crops of sugarcane, coffee, and tobacco. By far the largest trading partner?—The Soviet Union. But in 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed, and so did Cuban agriculture. Once again (as it had after the 1961 US blockade began), Cuba lost 80% of its trade, including the market for its crops and the imports of food that had fed the populace. Thus began the “Special Period” (still continuing today) in which agriculture (among other sectors) underwent radical change. In one such change, beginning in 1993, a number of large state farms were broken up and turned over to cooperatives made up of the farm-workers who had been wage-earners on the land before—thus the birth of the UBPCs. The land itself was granted in “usufruct” (essentially, a long-term lease of the state-owned land). Sustainable agriculture began to be understood as a matter of national security, and organic and agro-ecological techniques began to be adopted.

At UBPC Alamar, Miguel Salcines, president of the cooperative, walked us through the good-sized farm with its lush vegetable and herb crops striping the rust-red soil. Here he is explaining their use of irrigation and covered structures (—for shade, rather than for raising the temperature, as we use them here in Seattle; I’m here to tell you that they do not need to raise the temperature. At all. Whew.). By the way, pretty much our entire group is in this photo; there were just  nine of us, plus our tour coordinator Zoe and our guide/translator Jesús.

Among the other sustainable practices in use at Alamar are interplanting (here of lettuces and green onions), drip irrigation, integrated pest control, and vermiculture (using worms to turn cow manure into organic matter for compost)And they aren’t trifling with that operation either; they produce about one ton per day of organic matter, and sell what they don’t use.

The cooperative plans to grow; the farmers hold shares in the organization based on the length of time they have been members, and profits are distributed per share. The group votes on policies and practices, and Sr. Salcines told us that their decisions can’t be overruled by outsiders. They also have a community mission; they do educational  tours and workshops for the local schools.

We ended our tour with a delicious meal served alfresco on the farm:  fresh plantains, mangos, squash soup, black beans, malanga (a potato-like tuber), fresh juice, and more. We also saw one of our first instances of the Cuban “make it do” mentality—old bus windows pressed into service in an outbuilding on the farm.

Back in town in the afternoon, we took a little walking tour of the Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza Vieja in Old Havana. Remember that the Spanish were thriving in Cuba as early as the first years of the 16th Century; Havana’s streets and plazas are as elegant and baroque and wasted as only five complex centuries can make them. But throughout the twists and turns of our walk, it seemed to me that Cuban wit and creativity winked at us from all sides. What had we learned so far about Cuba? Here at the end of our first day, I couldn’t say; I found myself distrustful of my own delight in what I was seeing. Was our experience being managed? Certainly. Were the people we were meeting open and analytical and willing to question their own practices? Yes. The one thing I was sure of was that I needed to learn more.

Spudnik! Growing 21st-century potatoes

Lots of ways to grow potatoes!  I grow potatoes in a barrel, and to harvest them I turn the barrel over and scrabble around for them in the dirt-pile. Last year, a class from the Seattle Culinary Academy grew potatoes in mounded rows at La Conner Flats, and harvested them with a hoe. Poor old van Gogh’s peasants trudged along behind an ox, planting potatoes one by one in a long furrow. and probably harvested them with a hoe too.

Forget the ox. Forget the barrel and the hoe. A few weeks back, I went on a farm tour in Skagit Valley that included a stop at Knutzen Farms, where Kraig Knutzen, a fifth-generation direct descendent of the original farm family, showed us how to get serious about growing potatoes. (My phone was dead!—so I didn’t get a photo. But let’s see if I can conjure up a picture for you.)

On the edge of a large plowed field behind Kraig’s barn, two huge machines idled. The smaller one began to rumble as it lobbed an avalanche of seed potatoes (potatoes cut into pieces, each piece with an eye) into the bed of the bigger machine.  The bigger machine, bristling with tanks and barrels and arms around its bed, loomed above the field on huge tires. Once it had a load of seed potatoes on board, a farmworker climbed into its cab, fired it up, and then, as it lumbered into action, tilted its steering wheel up and sat back with a laptop!—His driving job was done; the real navigator was a satellite a mile or so overhead that was chatting with an innocuous-looking yellow tripod farther down along the edge of the field.

This rig reads the minutest contours of the field; it can align the edge of each pass across the field within an inch of the previous pass. It not only plants the seed potatoes with precision, it also measures out the exact (and exactly minimal) application of dry or liquid fertilizer needed for each inch of the field. And it stores all of this data in a huge file so that the inputs can be compared to the harvest, and year can be compared to year. Kraig says they “just pull this big data set into Google Docs and monitor how it’s going over time.”

But wait, is this industrial overkill? How does this kind of mechanized precision agriculture fit into a vision of a sustainably managed family farm? Kraig had plenty to say on the subject. He pointed out that this technology enables them to get the maximum use out of the land with minimum inputs of fertilizer or other treatments. Combined with other strategies like integrated pest management, use of amendments that aren’t residual in the soil season over season, elaborate crop rotation schemes, and so on, the technology is one more tool that enables the Knutzens to fulfill their generation-to-generation mission to be wise stewards of their land. It also helps the farm to be commercially viable, so that the family can look forward to farming their land for the very long run.

The Skagit Valley farmers that I have met are a fascinating lot—on the one hand innovative  entrepreneurs, on the other thoughtful conservators of their farming landscape. Over the coming months, I hope to introduce you to many more of them!—Stay tuned!

UW Club’s Farm to Table dinner: Beautiful lamb, beautiful wines!

Who doesn’t love an excellent dinner prepared with great skill from first-rate ingredients? But to appreciate it even more, just catch a glimpse of the complicated journey made by all those ingredients from the field to your plate. At the UW Club’s Farm to Table dinner, we got just that chance, to see our meal through the eyes of the family that raised our lamb and the family that made our wines. An eye-opener!

Paulette Lefever and her two kids Madison and Conor sketched a picture of life on the Lefever Holbrook Ranch: raising not just lambs but pigs, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, and more; growing vegetables for sale; running a bakery; running a catering operation; and just cultivating as many varied revenue streams as possible, to get the most out of their land and to hedge their bets against losses.

Paulette explained that when you are working with 1% profit margins, pretty much everything is a threat, and you deal constantly with the tradeoffs and unintended consequences of “competing goods.” For example, we all value biological diversity and the protection of indigenous wildlife. And we all value humanely raised, naturally pastured farm stock. But guess what happens when that indigenous wildlife is a wolf, and the farm animal out there in the pasture up on the butte is a lamb. It turns out that I’m not the only one who loves leg of lamb. But even in the face of all the challenges, it was clear that Paulette, Madison, and Conor are committed to the choices they have made—humane ranching and the best stewardship of their land. And the quality of the result was evident right there on our plates!

We also heard from Takashi Atkins, the owner of Waving Tree Winery, just down the road from Paulette’s ranch. He contrasted his family’s small-winery approach to that of the larger players: not “I know you are going to love this” but “how does it taste to you? Tell me what you think!” Waving Tree produces small quantities and really values engaging in a  dialog with customers about how the wines are working for them. And the ones he brought for us were working very well indeed!

But now on to that meal. The first course, sliced lamb sirloin crostini with caramelized onions and fig relish, was so appealing that I forgot myself and ate it up before I took a picture for you! So you have to trust me on this: a succulent curl of lamb with sweet onions and small quartered figs nestled together on an oval of lightly toasted chewy baguette.  With it, we had Waving Tree’s 2007 Grenache, a rich red with (according to the owner of a better palate than mine!) notes of cherry, dark chocolate, and caramel. Great start!

Next up, a lovely salad with spring peas, house-made ricotta, and red peppers in vinaigrette. Fresh tender salad with peas straight out of the pod! But the big surprise for this course was the wine—a sweet (but not too sweet) 2011 Sangiovese rosé. I liked it so much that I bought a couple of bottles and opened one at home on Sunday evening. The mystery of pairings!—It was still very good, but just not as striking with my asparagus-chevre omelette. But then on Monday it went really well with a hot stir-fry of my snow peas with red peppers in sesame oil. Go figure.

So! Now on to the main event—the leg of lamb. I have to quote the menu: “nicoise olive tapenade rubbed leg of lamb stuffed with seasoned house-ground lamb served with a garlic lemon zest au jus.” The earthy duet of olives and lamb was balanced by the lemon, and the ground lamb stuffing was really unusual—don’t picture hamburger!—Closer to a smooth paté or dense mousse. Yes, there was a small salad there on the plate too—field greens in a vinaigrette with cute baby carrots cut lengthwise—and some roasted small potatoes, and a dab of kale, all lovely. But the lamb au jus!—To die for. We had a 2008 Barbera with it, which had the body and complexity to hold its own very nicely with the rich lamb.

Dessert? A fresh fruit Napoleon with a little scoop of sorbet, very refreshing! And it was paired with the 2011 Muscat Canelli, a sweet white wine perfect with the fruit and berries.

Another excellent meal from UW Club manager Alex Chordas, executive chef Jon Maley, sous chef Jeff Soper, and chef Mike Hoffman! I’ll have more to say in upcoming posts about Paulette, Madison, and Conor and the Lefever Holbrook ranch; stay tuned! And if you’d like to sample Takashi’s Waving Tree wines, visit the website or the tasting room in Kirkland (11901 124th Ave. NE;425-820-0102).

 

 

Come to Paulette’s Slow-Food lamb dinner this Saturday!

I’ve been raving for some time now about Goldendale rancher Paulette Lefever and her kids Madison and Conor. Now’s your chance to meet them and feast on Paulette’s succulent grass-fed, hand-raised lamb! This Saturday June 16th, the UW Club is hosting a Slow Food dinner featuring lamb from the Lefever/Holbrook Ranch and wine pairings from the Waving Tree Winery, a small winery in Klickitat County down the road from the ranch.The UW Club’s fantastic chef Jon Maley and his staff have built a beautiful menu to showcase the products from these two Washington food artisans.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a house filled with the aromas of a lamb shoulder roast I got from Paulette slow-roasting in a thicket of rosemary sprigs and cloves of garlic. Two more hours before I can eat!—I’d like to go in there right now and swallow the meat, the pan, and the oven all together. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this chance to savor this beautiful lamb!

Not a member of the UW Club?–No worries! For this event, club manager Alex Chordas tells me that non-members are welcome to attend. (You can pay in cash when you get there. Note!—No credit cards.) Don’t miss it!—And if you’d like to sit at my table, let me know—Alex will make sure we make up a “party” (this will not be a hard task . . .).

Paulette tells me that “one of the best experiences for someone in food production is to share with others the fruits of their labor.” She and the Waving Tree folks are looking forward to sitting down to a great meal with you and a roomful of like-minded people.

Stats:  Saturday June 16th, $50+tax, starts at 6:00 pm, UW Club on the University of Washington campus. Call 206-543-0437 to make a reservation. I hope to see you there!

Here’s the blurb and menu, shamelessly copied from the UW Club website:

Lefever/Holbrook Ranch and Waving Tree Winery

This is a very special evening about Slow Food.  Grazed on native dry land hills and pastures of Lorena Butte in Klickitat County, Lefever/Holbrook natural spring lamb is free of added hormones and are never fed antibiotics.  Lefever/Holbrook Ranch focuses on achieving balance that protects the environment, promotes sustainable agriculture, practices humane treatment of food animals and supports the rural family.  Ranch owner Paulette Lefever will be at the Club to talk about her 30 years of experience in the food and livestock industry.

Waving Tree Winery is a small, family owned winery down the road from Paulette’s Ranch concentrating on red wines.  Their vineyard has the longest growing season of any area east of the mountains.  Don’t miss this wonderful evening celebrating Washington’s bounty.

Dinner begins at 6pm.  Cost is $50.00 + tax per person

Menu

Sliced Lamb Sirloin Crostini with Caramelized Onions and Fig Relish

Petit Green Salad with Spring Peas, House Made Ricotta and Red Peppers in Vinaigrette

Nicoise Olive Tapenade rubbed Leg of Lamb stuffed with Seasoned House Ground Lamb, served with a
Garlic Lemon Zest Au Jus

Fresh Fruit Napoleon

April 14th! Skagit farm-fresh dinner on a field of tulips

Every April, the Tulip Festival draws pretty much the entire population of Seattle north to the Skagit Valley to marvel at the giant ribbons and patches of red, pink, yellow, and orange that quilt the valley’s fields as the flowers come into bloom. The article about the festival in the paper yesterday offered an “If you go” sampler of other attractions to take in while you’re there, but left out one of the best–the “Celebrate Skagit–Dinner on the Farm” on Saturday April 14th. Don’t miss it!–There are only a few seats left!

Have you heard of the “Outstanding in the Field” dinners, with their landmark long tables stretching across a farmer’s field? The Celebrate Skagit dinner draws on the same inspiration, but let’s face it, nobody in the Northwest is going to sign up to eat dinner in a sodden April field!–This dinner will be held in the Sam Hill Barn near Mount Vernon, a 1927 Washington State Heritage barn on property that was one of the first bulb-growing fields in the valley. (Note!–The barn pictured above is not the Sam Hill Barn! It is just one of the beautiful faded structures that linger among the tulip fields.)

What’s on the menu? To start, Skagit Valley yields a prodigious crop of potatoes, and some of them may show up on your plate, but others will arrive in a glass!–Skagit Yukon Golds, distilled into vodka,  will anchor a signature cocktail created by Skip Rock Distillers for this event. For the meal itself, chef Michael Miller is creating appetizers and a four-course dinner from the diverse harvests of the valley–seafood, meat, cheese, grains, produce, berries, and more. And Hellam’s Vineyard of La Conner will be selecting Washington wine pairings for the dinner.

The dinner will be elegant, but don’t show up in black tie! The event will take place rain or shine, and remember, you’ll be on a farm–the website recommends galoshes, jeans, and jackets.

The event sponsors, Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland (SPF), have gone all out on this event to showcase the products of the lavishly fertile Skagit Valley, on the same latitude as France’s Loire Valley. The proceeds of the dinner (which costs $100 per person) will support their critically important work of sustaining the viability of Skagit Valley agriculture. I hope I’ll see you there! (But if I don’t, stay tuned–I’m going to write it up here to tempt you into signing up for the July edition!)

Freeze your carcass! (And make broth)

I’m snowed in! First we got snow; then we got freezing rain; then more snow. Frosted ice! Here’s the view out my kitchen window..

So nothing sounded better than putting a big pot on the stove to simmer all day. I’ve actually been collecting the ingredients for a good broth for months now. Back in October, I made Chinese chicken wings; for my recipe, you don’t use the wing tips, so I cut them off and froze them (a dozen of them!). Then, a couple of weeks later, I boned some chicken breasts and poached them; I threw the raw bones into a freezer bag. My big Christmas turkey ended up, picked clean, down to a bag of bones in the freezer. And when I cut up Rex the Rabbit for braising, I ended up with some bits and pieces of backbone, also bagged and frozen. Into the pot!–raw and cooked, chicken, turkey, and rabbit.

Stock is made basically from bones, bones, and bones (cooked, roasted, or raw),  with enough water to cover them. Add a mirepoix, which is just a mixture of chopped onions, carrots, and celery (equal to about one-fifth by weight of the bones). Simmer forever! Then in the last 30 minutes or so, add a sachet of bay leaf, parsley stems, cracked pepper, thyme, and garlic clove. I cooked my stock for a total of about seven hours, skimming it and stirring it occasionally. I added no salt; since I had brined the turkey, it had salt enough. Then I strained it through cheesecloth. I ended up with almost two gallons of stock!

With this mix of ingredients, it’s not an elegant stock, but very flavorful. I used a big ladle of it to make a soup for my early dinner, with frozen peas and toasted croutons made from last week’s rustic bread. I ate it sitting in my warm and fragrant kitchen, watching my icy garden slip into darkness.

Rex the Rabbit (Cacciatore)

This week I once again found myself with that restless urge to cook up something new. Rummaging around in my freezer, I pulled out a package from my Lefever Holbrook Ranch meat delivery: “rabbit ‘Rex’ 2.5 lbs.” Poor old Rex!–I may have scratched his ears back in September when I visited Paulette and her kids on the ranch. Rex wasn’t his name, of course–it was his breed, developed in France in the early 20th century. And now that I think about it, the rabbit I met in Goldendale did have a Gallic air about him, holding me with his dark gaze as I stroked his plush velvet coat.

The whole rabbit family on Paulette’s ranch is pretty cosmopolitan; here’s Madison with one of the babies (“kits”), whose mother was a New Zealand (in spite of its name, first bred in Mexico, also around the early 20th century) and whose father was our friend Rex. (You’d recognize a New Zealand–a big fluffy albino white rabbit with ears that blush pink.) Since rabbits raised for meat are often harvested at two months old, and I got my order from the ranch at the end of November, I’m now thinking that my Rex was actually Rex fils, one of these September kits.

With Rex now defrosting on my kitchen counter, I feel an unexpected pang. I know the usual things about him that I want to know about the food that I eat: where he came from, who raised him, how he was raised. But this time I know him.

Why am I a carnivore? Like you, I’ve read any number of articles about the need to eat lower on the food chain–much less meat and more fruits, grains, and vegetables. For one thing, it’s easier on the environment; it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat, and methane gas from farm animals accounts for around 15% of the world’s greenhouse gases. Also, we’d show some shred of solidarity with the other seven billion of us on the planet–we can’t all eat this way, so maybe none of us should. And then of course it’s easier on the animals!

But eating meat runs deep. When I was growing up in South Texas, we had meat at almost every meal. Ham and bacon. Plenty of beef–pot roast, steaks, hamburger in all of its chameleon forms. Chicken, the noble yard bird!–I remember helping my grandmother slaughter and clean them for Sunday supper.

We got some of this meat by hunting. I went a few times, but my father and brothers went every year. My dad had an old Scout (precursor to the now ubiquitous SUV!) welded and bolted into a hunting machine–braces for standing up to scan across the mesquite brush for quarry, gun racks, a ball-mount tow-hitch to pull his beat-up old jeep behind them. In early fall, before the break of day, they would load up the bird dogs and head out to their lease to hunt quail and white-wing dove. In November, they went off for long weekends to the hunting camp, getting up early every day to hike out to their stand and sit silently for hours watching for a deer to emerge from the dawn shadows and mist.

If they got their shot, on the way back home they would stop at Gafford’s grocery store to leave the dressed animal in a rented freezer locker. It was a tradition in our family that my dad would share his deer with a Mexican woman who worked with him, and then a few days before Christmas, she and her family would bring us venison tamales!–Dozens and dozens of them. To this day, when I am home for the holidays we have chili and tamales for our Christmas Eve meal.

So eating meat, for many of us, is part of who we are, where we came from, how we savor the earth’s bounty together. Do we need to become vegetarians or even vegans? I can imagine getting there (or at least getting close) some day, but for now I just try to choose and prepare my food as thoughtfully as I can.

So, I’m still a carnivore, though I hope a more minimal and mindful one. And today I braised poor Rex alla Cacciatora (hunter style). He was delicious!

Rabbit Stew (recipe from the New York Times, January 4th, 2012)

  • 1 whole rabbit (2 1/2 to 3 lbs.)
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • flour, for dusting
  • 2 cups onions, finely diced
  • 2 cups leeks, finely diced
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon crumbled dry porcini mushrooms, soaked in warm water to soften drained and finely chopped (save the liquid to add to the sauce)
  • 8 oz. cremini or portobello mushrooms, thickly sliced (I used portobellos)
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup chopped canned tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup unsalted chicken broth
  1. 1. Cut up the rabbit; the directions were complicated, but basically you want more or less the same pieces you’d get with a chicken–a breast (you can split it into two pieces), two front legs, a back, and two back legs (possibly split into two pieces each–thigh and drumstick, more or less).
  2. Heat 1/4 inch olive oil in a Dutch oven or deep, wide heavy skillet over medium heat. Season the rabbit pieces with salt and pepper, then dust lightly with flour. Lightly brown the rabbit for about 3 minutes o both sides, working in batches. Drain on kitchen towels, then transfer to a baking dish in one layer. Heat over to 375 degrees.
  3. Pour off the used oil, wipe out the pan and add 2 tablespoons fresh oil. Heat to medium-high, add the onions and cook till soft, about 5 minutes. Add the leek, garlic, rosemary and mushrooms. Season generously with salt and pepper; add red pepper flakes to taste. Cook for 2 minutes more, stirring.
  4. Add the chopped tomatoes and wine, and let the mixture reduce for 1 minute. Add the broth and mushroom liquid, bring to a simmer, taste and adjust the seasoning (but remember that the red pepper flakes will get hotter).
  5. Ladle the mixture evenly over the rabbit. Cover the dish, and bake for 1 hour. Let it rest 10 minutes before serving.

I ate my first serving on a bed of fettucini. Tomorrow I might serve it on rice. Or potatoes? Or just a big slice of beautiful rustic bread.

Never told you about the Crush! (A holiday story that starts in September)

On Thursday afternoon of that last long September weekend before this school year started, some friends and I drove across the mountains to the heart of wine country for Catch the Crush, the yearly celebration of the Washington grape harvest. (The “crush” starts the process of making wine. The business of stepping barefoot into a barrel of grapes?–That’s one way to do a crush.)

On Friday Denise and Diana went off for a warm-up round of golf, so I was on my own. I first set out for the Bookwalter Winery, but they weren’t open yet (why not?–it was already 10:00 in the morning!). So I walked down the road to Barnard Griffin. The person setting up there explained how the Crush wine-tastings work: to sample the wines they’ve opened for the tasting, you pay a small fee (say five dollars), which usually will apply against any wine you buy from them.  Or, for I think $30, you can buy a Catch the Crush Premier Pass passport, a booklet that has a page for each of the wineries taking part in the promotion (38 this year!). At each stop, you skip the fee and get a stamp in your booklet. (Was it a good deal? Probably, given the number of wineries we visited, but some of them were waiving the fee anyway.)

Also, as I learned at Barnard Griffin, for about five dollars you can buy a commemorative wine glass from most of the wineries. I went for it! (–And it was only my first one! By Sunday I had accumulated a glass from almost every winery I visited. In fact, as I click away on this post, I have a full one sitting right here on my desk–a nice stemless model from Chandler Reach.)

At any rate, Barnard Griffin gave me my first wine surprise of the trip–their 2010 Tulip riesling. I’m usually wary of rieslings (wouldn”t want to stray into sweet territory!) but I liked this off-dry one best out of their whole tasting lineup. I also learned a little about how to concentrate on the taste and see how it unfolds as you savor it. (The person pouring for me clearly loved the wines, and knew how to help a novice like me appreciate them!)

After Barnard Griffin (nice folks!), I walked back over to Bookwalter. This winery really exercises the “book” motif. The wines have names like “protagonist,” “subplot,” and “foreshadow.” They have a “book club,” and they offer a “library” of wines. I tasted a couple of outstanding reds, especially the 2008 Foreshadow merlot and 2009 Antagonist syrah-cabernet-malbec blend. (But seriously–completely out of commemorative wine glasses, on the first day of the biggest tourist event of the year?) This is where I also heard the first throat-clearings of what would be a trip-long running conversation about AVAs. I already had a sketchy idea about AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), also called appellations, but now I was right in the neighborhood. That 2009 Antagonist?–mostly grapes from the Columbia Valley AVA, with some from Elephant Mountain Vineyards, on the southern slope of Rattlesnake Ridge, in the new appellation of Rattlesnake Hills. Take Highway 82 up toward Zillah–you can’t miss it.

Next, I made my way over to my old friend Hogue Cellars, one of the largest Washington wineries. (Their red label is a staple on grocery store shelves.) These folks make some really good wines! A standout that was new to me was the 2010 Terroir bII, a Bordeaux-style blend of 90% semillon and 10% sauvignon blanc, made from grapes grown on the Fries Vineyard in the Wahluke Slope AVA. (The Fries family owns the Duck Pond and Desert Wind labels, but also, I gather, sells grapes to other winemakers.) I also really liked the 2008 Reserve chardonnay, from grapes grown in the Yakima Valley AVA; they produced only 100 barrels of it that year. (I know this because the enthusiastic young pourer told me so. This and much, much more.)  I usually just grab their chard, but I’ll explore a little deeper on the Hogue shelf after this tasting!

Then, after a couple of false starts, I made my way to the Desert Wind Winery. (It’s right there on that hill!–Why can’t I find my turn??)  I sensed that lunch was getting important, so I went straight to the winery’s restaurant, Mojave by Picazo. Good choice! I had the blue crab “cigars”–hand-rolled feather-light blue corn tortillas filled with blue crab, served with a tart fresh tomatillo salsa. (Wait, aren’t blue crabs from the Atlantic coast? What a hike to eastern Washington! But I digress.) The side of gargonzola potato salad was spiked with tiny bacon bits and bright with green onions. Tasty! With it, I had a glass of Desert Wind sauvignon blanc (made from grapes grown in the Wahluke Slope appellation in the larger Columbia Valley AVA). And what a dessert!–molten Mexican chocolate lava cake with a lightly salted caramel drizzle. Had to wait for it to cool a bit!–Not easy.

I caught chef Chris Nokes to ask him about the “cigar” filling, which had been riffling some little edge of a food memory. “Think spinach artichoke dip, but without the spinach, crab instead, rolled up in a corn tortilla. Add a touch of parmesan.”  Got it! After lunch, I took in their tasting and found two more excellent whites–a slightly oaked 2009 chardonnay and a 2009 semillon.

Sound like a lot of wine?–Remember: in a tasting, you tilt your nose down into your glass and breathe over the little splash of wine at the bottom, then you tip your glass up and moisten your mouth with the wine and breathe again. Maybe you swallow a trickle–then you dump out the rest into a big jar on the counter. This is wine-tasting, not wine-swigging. Which is why I wasn’t sprawled on the gravel out in the parking lot.

But I wasn’t done yet! After my late lunch I met up post-golf with Denise and Diana and we hit four more tastings. Now that I had the two of them to talk to, my note-taking tailed off, but at least I noted our stops: Airfield Estates (another winery working a motif; we tasted wines named Runway, and Aviator, and Lightning); Coyote Canyon Winery, where my pick was the 2010 Albariño, a Spanish grape that Coyote Canyon was apparently the first in Washington to plant, at Coyote Canyon Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA; Milbrandt Vineyards, with its own fantastic riesling fragrant with fresh grapefruit; and Apex Cellars Winery, where I found maybe my best wine of the day, a beautifully creamy oaked chardonnay. (I tend to choose whites over reds, and this trip was no exception.) Finally, done for the day!

On Saturday, now with reinforcements (friends CJ and John had pulled in on Friday evening), we headed for Red Mountain. The Red Mountain AVA, a triangular wedge just east across the Yakima River from Benton City, is, at 4,000 acres (with only 600 of that in cultivation), the smallest appellation in Washington. Our map showed 14 wineries in the AVA, but we tasted at just two. At the Kiona Vineyards Winery, the tasting stretches out along a couple of intersecting long rooms, each with stations offering several wines. I was taken with a spicy rosé (I believe it was their Mourvédre rosé, though they also have one made from sangiovese grapes; my notes fail me here). I also really surprised myself by loving a late harvest sweet wine! Next we visited Tapteil Vineyards Winery, where the cabernet sauvignon was most interesting to me (also a surprise because of its strong tannin, which I don’t usually go for). The Tapteil tasting room was refreshingly homey and the people were good-humored and helpful.

Then we zoomed back westward to Prosser to take in four more wineries. The three-story stucco villa of Chandler Reach Vineyards whisks you off to Tuscany before you even get in the door, and the wine selections tilt Italian as well, especially their Corella sangiovese blend. But we also tasted a viognier. (Floral; some like it, some don’t. I don’t always, but I did like this one!)

By now, mid-Day Two, I had given up trying to take pictures, and I began to notice a certain truculence in my reactions to the wines I was tasting. I know that we stopped at Hightower Cellars, but my only note, quoted completely, is “cab sauv.” I was already familiar with Kestrel Vintners; I had visited their tasting room a couple of years ago, and had belonged to their wine club for a year after that. They have a great old-vine chardonnay and a very light sauvignon blanc, as well as an array of reds from easy quaffers like Lady in Red to serious high-end merlots and cabernet sauvignons, But by the time we got there, my palate was too exhausted to detect much beyond “red” and “white.” I didn’t write a single note! On the up side, they were serving a cheerful spiced-wine punch that brightened us up considerably.  Finally, at our last stop, Mercer Estates, I tasted a 2009 pinot gris that I could rise to “love”–but I can  only guess why because I didn’t make a single other comment! And so my wine-tasting shambled to an end.

But now, with the end-of-year holidays finally here, I find myself buying a lot of wine for my friends, and as I reach for this bottle or that, I often let my hand be guided by my memories of these tasting rooms and labels, these helpful people, friendly winery dogs, and lovely golden fields braided with rows of grapevines. Desert Wind, Kestrel, Barnard Griffin, Kiona, Mercer, Apex, Milbrandt. And I still have my slender bottle of First Crush, Kiona’s 2006 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, a liquid-gold dessert wine produced from nearly frozen grapes. Maybe I’ll open it this New Year’s Eve to sip with my own attempt at  Mexican chocolate lava cake!

On the Sunday of that long weekend, we got up early to make it to the Prosser airport by 6:00 (that’s in the morning) for the Great Prosser Balloon Rally. Look!–They launched a whole blue sky of ornaments! Happy wine tasting, and Happy New Year!

Eating and drinking well in Ann Arbor!

A few weeks back, I finally worked out a way to spend a weekend visiting my friend Steph in Ann Arbor! A lovely small city that is home to a large university, Ann Arbor can offer first-class amenities in pretty much every category of eat, drink, and be merry, so  Steph and I didn’t stint.

Friday evening Steph picked me up at the Detroit airport and took me straight to a wonderful Ann Arbor wine-tasting put on by The Produce Station, with stewards pouring tastes from all the major wine regions of the world. Luckily, the hors d’oeuvres were plentiful and hearty!–We munched as we sipped, and kept both our palates clean and our heads (reasonably) clear. Then we went out to Zingerman’s Deli for hefty Reuben sandwiches dressed up with extra  chopped chicken liver! Think of the most exotic condiment you can, cured meat, or cheese, or oil–Zingerman’s Deli has it, and the incredibly pleasant and knowledgeable staff want to tell you about it. So we were there until closing!

Saturday we straggled down to the kitchen later than we planned and trifled with tea and toast. After taking care of a couple of work projects (part of my excuse for being there!), we polished off the rest of our Reubens and went out to the markets. Ann Arbor has an excellent open-air farmers market, with tons of beautiful produce, flowers, and crafts; we also visited the nearby Kerrytown shops–fish market, cheese shop, Sparrow Meats, everything! And we finished up at nearby Tracklements to get some some beautiful lox. Tracklements is popular!–It looked like a big slice of Ann Arbor was already in line. But proprietor T.R. Durham and his staff seemed to know everybody by name and custom order. Steph was no exception!–She got our lox thin-sliced. (Here she is in her terrific faux-fur coat.)

At this point we had to hustle back to the house because Steph’s early-music group was about to show up for practice. I got to sprawl on the sofa for a couple of hours and pretend to read, reveling in the woof and warp of soprano, mezzo, and contralto, catching brief glimpses of their expertise at work as they stopped, backed up, repeated, discussed. Fascinating!

By the time they finished, we hadn’t eaten for hours, so we went out and had a great fish dinner at The Earle! I didn’t take notes on my dish but I remember that it was a beautiful whitefish, well-prepared and tastily garnished.

How could there be more to eat in Ann Arbor?!? Did I mention that Zingerman’s actually has five different restaurants? So on Sunday morning, before heading me back to the airport, we went off for brunch to Zingerman’s Roadhouse. The place was packed, of course; we decided to eat at the counter. The same friendly staff, the same hearty, delicious food! I had to have the hash with poached eggs, accompanied by warm and earthy bread and jam. And you bet I ate it all.

T. R. Durham of Tracklements has produced a great cookbook, The Smoked Seafood Cookbook: Easy Innovative Recipes from America’s Best Fish Smokery. Smoked fish has not played much of a role in my diet so far, but this book’s wide-ranging recipes have opened my eyes to the possibilities. I’ll cook up something soon and share it with you!

More cheese, please!

You may recall my post (almost a year ago now!) about Cheese 101, the excellent introduction to world-class cheeses by cheesemonger Sheri LaVigne. Browsing in Sheri’s store The Calf & Kid after class, I picked up Tami Parr’s great book on the Artisan Cheese of the Pacific Northwest and proceeded to munch my way through a big chunk of it. So how could I resist when Sheri offered a second cheese class hosted by Tami herself?

We convened once again at the common table in Sitka & Spruce (Matt Dillon’s very uncommon restaurant in the Melrose Market). Sheri introduced us to Tami and then we settled in to learn about a baker’s dozen of local cheeses. (It had to have been a challenge to select them; since 2000, when the Northwest had just six cheesemakers, the number in Oregon and Washington has grown to 72–and counting!)

We tasted our way around a first plate of eleven cheeses, starting with a fresh chevre from Yarmouth Farms (at high noon in this picture). I’ve mentioned Louise Yarmouth’s French Creek cheese before, but I gather that she now produces only this chevre. [This just in!–Sheri tells me I got it wrong. In fact, Louise also produces bloomy rind cheeses and two or three aged hard cheeses. Better and better!] To make the chevre, she blends the milk from the four breeds that make up her 25-goat herd. It’s an airy fluffy chevre that I liked so well I went back for a little tub of it; I served it on crackers with just a simple herb garnish.

The next two cheeses (at 1:00 and 2:00 on the plate) are Dinah’s Cheese from Kurtwood Farms on Vashon Island and Seastack Cheese from the Mt. Townsend Creamery over in Port Townsend. (Dinah is one of Kurt Timmermeier’s six Jersey cows; I told you earlier about his adventures becoming a farmer. ) Both of these soft-ripened cheeses, made from pasteurized cow’s milk, are buttery, earthy, and  aromatic. Not from Seattle?–You can get them in many regional grocery stores that have fine-cheese counters.

The next cheese, an “ashed camembert” from Tieton Creamery in Yakima, was a real find. Made from pasteruized goat and sheep’s milk (Tami tells us that owners Laurie and Ruth mix the milk of their 16 goats and nine sheep), this soft-rind cheese was creamy and rich. I went back to get more of it too, but ended up with a different camembert–also made from goat and sheep milk, but not ashed. This very soft, pungent camembert was lovely but I’m holding out for the one I first tasted; stay tuned!

Dutchman’s Flat, the cheese next on the plate, is a raw goat’s milk cheese made by Juniper Grove Farm in Redmond (no, not that Redmond–this one is in Oregon). I found it a little chalky; Tami says it is very good with fig compote and similar cooked fruit.

On to the firm cheeses. At 6:00 is Mopsey’s Best, a manchego-style cheese made from raw sheep’s milk that had a nice rich, deep flavor. (Maybe because sheep’s milk is 8% fat or more, compared to a meager 4% for cows and goats?) Went out and got more!–It’s great for simple munching.

The next two cheeses, Dulcinea from Larks Meadow in Rexburg, Idaho and Brindisi from Willamette Valley Cheese in Salem, Oregon, were both really nice, but I especially loved the last of this batch, the Classico Reserve made by Tumalo Farms in Bend, Oregon. (The owner, I gather, made his fortune from WebMD and then retired to tend his 300 goats.) Like a Gouda, it is brined, and has a vaguely sweet taste and a firm but creamy texture with a tiny bit of crunch. I couldn’t resist more of this one, either–I served it with just a curl of salami on top.

The final two cheeses on this plate were the blues. (My notes tell me that, to get the characteristic blue marbling of this cheese, the makers pierce the cheese wheel as it ages to enable the mold to grow inside.) The first one, Billy Blue, from Oak Leaf Creamery in Grants Pass, Oregon, is unusual in that it is made from goat’s milk. The second one, Caveman Blue from the Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon, was well-known to me (another well-established producer whose products appear in better-cheese cases in area grocery stores), and still remains a favorite–sweet and pungent at the same time. Get some, if you like blue!

Eleven cheeses!–But we weren’t done. The last two tastes were really desserts made from cheese. The first was Chocolate Goat Chevre Truffle from Briar Rose Creamery in Dundee, Oregon–made with just those ingredients. So good I wanted to throw myself on the floor with it. (But when I went back to get more–say a gallon or so–I learned that the makers have suspended production for a couple of months while they move to a new farm. Trying to be patient here . . .) The second taste was Frangelico from River’s Edge Chevre in Logsden, Oregon–fresh chevre, Frangelico liqueur, roasted hazelnuts, and brown sugar. Also delicious! (but for a chocoholic like me, doomed by coming second).

Get all these cheeses and more from Sheri at The Calf and Kid!–She has an amazing selection, sourced not just locally but internationally, and she and her other staff are knowledgeable and friendly. Not sure?–Ask for a taste; they are happy to help.  And be sure to visit Tami’s website, the Pacific Northwest Cheese Project, for cheese recipes, news, profiles, and much, much more!

Cooking Anne Hilton’s Christmas chapbook

My friend Anne made a chapbook of vegetarian recipes for her mother’s Christmas present this year, and I was lucky enough to get a copy too! Entirely handcrafted, “from paper cutting and ink mixing to typesetting and the actual printing,” this little chapbook took me back to my first glimpse, in some dimly remembered college course, of the complicated construction of early letterpress books. Preparing the paper and ink, assembling the type into forms for each page and color, making each impression– every single stage calls for huge care and precision.. And no trivial task, either, to get from a flat sheet of paper to a folded booklet! (Try it! Using these pictures as a guide, take a sheet of printer paper, mark off one side into eight sections, and fold yourself a copy of Anne’s book.)  Anne tells me that the whole project took more than 100 hours of work.

The project also weaves together threads of the story of Anne and her mother; Anne explains that “while I was living in Korea, my mother sent me a book of vegetarian recipes for Christmas one year that she had written by hand. I still have and use that book, so I wanted to return the favor.” What could make a better gift?  The Korean character on the over of the chapbook means “good fortune, luck, or happiness;” Through her craftsmanship, I think Anne has made a little bit of all three–certainly luck for me!

Turning through the booklet, I noticed a recipe for “seitan” and green bean curry. Seitan?–Never heard of it. (At what point will I stop running into new ingredients?) Seitan, it turns out, is seasoned wheat protein–essentially, a very dense reduction of wheat gluten. (Not for everybody, obviously.) Look for it in the same case as tofu. Some people consider it “meat-like;” I bought a version called “chicken-style.” (I used to scoff at vegetarians who ate “pretend meat”–think veggie-burgers–but the more I learn about the costs of diets like my own Texas-size carnivore fare, the more inclined I am to explore alternatives. If a plant food can satisfy a meat craving, so much the better!)

This recipe came from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, one of numerous excellent cookbooks put out by the famous Moosewood Collective in Ithaca, NY. I went ahead and bought the book, but you can also find the recipe online (for instance in Google Books).

Here’s your list of ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped (~2 cups)
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh chile, or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne)
  • 4 teaspoons garam masala
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 pound green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces (~3 to 3 1/2 cups)
  • 1 pound seitan, finely chopped
  • 2 1/2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
  • 2/3 cup coconut milk
  • 3/4 cup water
  • salt and ground black pepper to taste
  • toasted unsalted cashew nuts

This dish is essentially a stir-fry; you want to have all these ingredients ready to go, so that you can work rapidly. Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok and add the onions and garlic. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes before adding the chile or cayenne, garam masala, and cumin. Stirring, sauté for another 2 or 3 minutes. Add the green beans, then the seitan, and mix well. Stir in the tomatoes, coconut milk, and water. Cover and bring to a simmer. Cook, covered, for about 10 minutes, until the beans are firm-tender. Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve topped with toasted cashews for a nice contrast in texture. It came out very nicely! Instead of rice, I cooked farro to go with the curry. Farro (also called emmer) is also a new food for me, although I gather that it is an ancient grain, even collected in the wild by pre-agrarian people as long as 17,000 years ago. My farro, though, was grown by Lentz Spelt Farms from Foundation Seed in arid eastern Washington, in Marlin over by Moses Lake.

This is not a demanding dish to prepare! But as I cooked, I thought about Anne’s mother writing down recipes for her to cook in Korea, and about eighteen hippies in Ithaca, NY forming a collective back in 1973 in to celebrate vegetarian fare, and about Washington farmers carrying forward the life of an ancient grain, and about Anne spending 100 hours crafting her chapbook. And as I serve dinner, I break into a grin: “we made this!”

(By the way, Anne also has a food blog!–be sure to visit her!)

Sauerkraut on the menu for a hearty autumn dinner

I never really went for sauerkraut. I love cabbage a dozen ways–steamed, or rolled around a filling and baked in a sauce, or blanketed with cheese, or shredded raw in a slaw or taco filling. But fermented?–No thanks.

Then my friend Bob Rose introduced me to Pleasant Valley Farms organic sauerkraut, made just an hour’s drive north of here in the Skagit Valley. Here’s Bob standing in front of the operation’s fermentation tanks, near La Conner. (Pleasant Valley Farms has a great story of its own, by the way; stay tuned for an upcoming post about it.)

Love this sauerkraut! Tangy cabbage, not lumpy vinegar. Crisp and crunchy, not limp and slimy. Here’s the entire list of ingredients: organic cabbage, organic cabbage juices, water, and salt. That’s it. As it says on the package, “made the old-fashioned way.”

So I can add one more food product to my growing list of those that taste completely different when fresh or prepared authentically. Ever taste canned asparagus?–Don’t. Still shaking Parmesan from the green can?–Stop; buy a block of the real stuff and grate it yourself. And go get some of this great kraut. You can get it at Whole Foods now; look for it in its plastic pouch in the refrigerated case (and store it in your fridge at home).

After my Thanksgiving cook-a-thon (timelines! flowcharts!), I got interested again in the problem of recipes for whole meals, not just single dishes. So here is one way to use this sauerkraut in a very nice dinner for a chilly autumn evening!

Bratwurst with sauerkraut and beets on their own greens

Start about an hour and a half before you want to eat.

Preheat your oven to 425°. Choose beets (leafy tops intact) that are about the same size, so that they will cook evenly. (I used organic red beets from Ralph’s Greenhouse, also from the Skagit Valley!) Cut the greens off your beets (leaving a short stub) but don’t peel the beets or cut off their tails. (I gather that the stubs and tails help keep them from leaking juice during the roasting.) Rub them with a little olive oil, wrap them in aluminum foil, and roast them for about an hour. (When they are done, you will be able to pierce them easily with a sharp knife.)

After you get the beets in the oven, put the beet greens to soak in a bowl (or sink) of cold water. (At this point, you now have about an hour to kill.)

After the beets are roasted (say after you’ve watched the news), put them on a plate to cool and start the bratwurst. Bring a pan of water to a simmer, add the brats, and let them simmer for about 20-25 minutes. (Don’t boil them!–The casing will split open). Turn them over every so often.

After you’ve gotten the brats going, make a vinaigrette for the beets. Mince a clove of garlic, then add a half-teaspoon of kosher salt on top. Smear the garlic and salt around with the side of a knife-blade until you have a paste. Put it in a small bowl and mix it with a half-teaspoon of a nice coarse (country-style) dijon mustard and a tablespoon of good vinegar. (I used a nice sherry vinegar.) Then, whisking like crazy, add three tablespoons of a good olive oil. (I fill a tablespoon with oil, then rest that hand on the rim of the bowl and let the oil drizzle in as I whisk with the other hand. Then repeat twice.) Set the vinaigrette aside for now to let the flavors blend.

Chop about a quarter-cup of walnuts; toast them if you want to in a dry skillet (but watch them like a hawk because they burn easily).

Then, put a steamer-basket in a saucepan, add water up to the bottom of the steamer basket, and bring the water to a boil.  While you wait for the water to boil, take the beet greens out of the cold water they’ve been soaking in, trim about an inch off the bottoms of the stems, then cut the stems on the bias into pieces an inch or so long. Cut the leaves across their width into ribbons about an inch wide (in cooking school they tell me this is a chiffonade.)

Close to the end of the wurst’s simmer, heat up a skillet, turn the heat to medium-low,  and add a little oil. When the sausage is done, transfer it to the skillet and turn it occasionally as it browns nicely.

While the brat is browning, turn the heat to low under the saucepan with the steamer basket, add the beet stems, and cover the pot. After about five minutes, add the leaves and cover. Cook until the stems are tender and the leaves are wilted but still have nice texture and color. (When are they done? Nibble on a leaf and stem!–Cook them until they are the texture you like. I cooked mine about five more minutes after adding the leaves.)

As the brat continues to brown and the beet greens cook, rub the skins, stem stubs, and tails off your roasted beets. (Just rub them with your hands!–The skin slides right off.) Slice them into rounds and toss the rounds with some of the walnuts and vinaigrette. (Whisk the dressing again if it has separated.) Put the sauerkraut in a microwave-safe bowl and zap it until it is steaming-hot. (Add caraway seeds or dill seeds if you like, but it is great by itself!)

Everything ready? Make two beds on your plate, one of sauerkraut and one of beet greens. Put the bratwurst on the sauerkraut and the dressed beet slices on the greens. Add some of the dijon mustard to the brat if you like. Sprinkle the beets with the rest of the chopped walnuts.

Pour yourself a German beer or a sturdy red wine and enjoy!

“Gimme five”? Try seventeen!–A feast from many hands

Do you remember that I asked for five volunteers to help me make some Thanksgiving dishes for the Plymouth Housing Group? Well, seventeen people came over on Wednesday afternoon to get the job done! (Actually, 27 people–lord, count ‘em!–had signed up to help, but, because of crazy work schedules, colds, flu, etc., ten weren’t able to join us. We missed you; we’ll look forward to seeing you next year!)

At any rate, with that many volunteers to wedge into my small house, I went into planning overdrive. I made recipe packets. I made shopping lists. I did walk-throughs. As it happens, I have lots of party paraphernalia–folding tables and chairs, leaves for my dining room table, platters, bowls, you name it–so I dragged it all out and converted my living room, dining room, and kitchen into food-prep stations. I asked my volunteers to come in two shifts, one for 4:00 and one for around 6:00. Tuesday evening, I roasted the turkey, saved the pan drippings, and boiled the giblets (ready to make gravy!). Then Wednesday afternoon, I put out munchies, poured a glass of wine, and called myself ready.

We had five recipes to make: cranberry-orange relish, cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes, sweet-potato casserole, and giblet gravy. I tried to split the recipes into two stages; the idea was that the 4:00 crowd would get things going, then the 6:00 crowd would finish up. I pictured people arriving maybe a little bit late, snacking, chatting for a while, and eventually getting down to work. Then Mr. Reality came through the door, and my plans jumped out the window. These people showed up on time and ready to go!

Here’s the Vlachos family making short work out of my cornbread dressing recipe. Darivanh (that’s her in black) turned out to be a power chopper; Vasili (seven years old) and Suriya (three years old) pulverized bread slices and cornbread, stirred eggs, poured broth, and kept us smiling. Laki (in tee shirt) kept everything going in the right direction and did plenty of boy-wrangling. The result?–The dressing in the pan (two pans, actually), ready to bake, before the end of the first shift!

My mashed-potato, relish, gravy, and sweet-potato teams were right behind them. Here’s Charlotte Lee and husband Marcel Blonk on sweet-potato prep, Libby Hanaford making relish, and Kristin Roth in clean-up mode. (They say good cooks clean up as they go; if so, all these guys were very good cooks, lucky for me!)

So-o-o, here comes my new 6:00 crowd of nine people, and I am standing here with five finished dishes!

We stared at each other blankly for a couple of minutes, then did a quick inventory and figured out that we could make another round of relish, mash, and sweet potato (thank heavens for warehouse shopping–a ten-pound bag of spuds goes a long way). Here’s Regina Derda and husband Michael Coleman finishing the relish (oh say 30 minutes after they got here), and my sweet-potato guys (Brian Espinosa, his sister Gretchen, and Thuy Duong)– also all done with cooking and dish-washing.

I didn’t get shots of the Gravy Amendment Team (Liz Diether-Martin and  Diedre Girard), who figured out how to stretch the giblet gravy into a whole second batch while keeping it thick and flavorful. (How did you do that?) And I also missed getting a shot of Julie Brunett (thank you for the extra pans, Julie!) and her six-year-old son Soren, who proved to be a mighty stirrer of mashed potatoes (and who cleaned one of the mixer’s beaters the old-fashioned way–and pronounced the potatoes very tasty).

(Intermezzo!–Midway through the afternoon, the folks from Lefever Holbrook Farm delivered my community-supported agriculture (CSA) meat order–half a lamb, rabbits, and a heritage Christmas turkey.  This stuff filled up two coolers! Here’s Conor with one and Madison with the other. What a treat to have them join us, if only briefly!

By 8:00 Wednesday evening, my gang was gone and everything was in the fridge. (Or I should say fridges; to make everything fit, I had to colonize my stepson’s fridge downstairs as well.)

Early Thursday morning, I baked the two pans of sweet potato casserole until the marshmallow topping browned and bubbled, I warmed up the other dishes, and boxed everything up for delivery (here’s less than half of it; it took me three trips to get everything in the car). We made a real feast!–two cartons of cranberry relish, two pans of sweet potato casserole, two cartons of giblet gravy, two pans of cornbread dressing, four pans of mashed potatoes, and one roast turkey!

Plymouth Housing Group asks volunteers to drop off their dishes at specific apartment buildings; PHG employees Brian Hatfield and Alan Berliner took my delivery at the Gatewood Apartments downtown by the Pike Place Market. Success!

Back home, I ignored the task of putting my house back in order to sit, feet up, cup of tea in hand, and enjoy the event again in hindsight. It had been a simple day, really; some people came over to my house and we cooked some dishes for other people to eat. For the most part, we hadn’t known each other before, but the conversation was easy, the humor ready, and the hands willing and skillful. No spills, no breakage; only one Band-Aid dispensed.

Not TV-worthy; no shoving or throwing elbows. Just a houseful of people taking a few hours out of their holiday to make life a little sweeter for someone else who was having a rougher go of it. There are many ways to get lucky!–but this time I hit it big. Thank you, my wonderful volunteers, for giving me a great Thanksgiving!

Gimme five!

You know me–when it comes to holidays, I’m pretty far over on the Bah Humbug end of the continuum. But I’ve had a great year, and Thanksgiving is coming! So I’d like to invite five of you over to my house on Wednesday the 23rd from 4:30-6:30 to help me prep part of a turkey dinner for the Plymouth Housing Group‘s holiday celebration.

PHG is a fantastic Seattle outfit that “transforms lives by providing permanent, supportive homes to chronically-homeless people.” They’ve got twelve different buildings serving hundreds of people; learn more about them on their website. Every Thanksgiving, dozens of volunteers pitch in to cook up and deliver dishes for their Thanksgiving spread. Last time I made sweet-potato casserole (pretty good, I must say), but this year I want you to help me amp it up! Let’s go for turkey and dressing with mashed potatoes and giblet gravy. (With maybe a green-bean casserole? Cranberry dressing? What’s your specialty?)

Come on over on Wednesday to help me with the chopping and dicing and peeling and measuring and mixing! (I’ll cook it up in time to deliver it hot and ready to eat on Thursday morning.) For your troubles, I’ll provide drinks and munchies for you, and all the ingredients for the dishes we prep.

Why just five of you?–My house is small, and I want all of the chopping and dicing to be done on food, not people! So sign up early (by replying to this post, or twitter, or facebook, or however we usually get together)–first come, first served!

Not in the Seattle area?–Find a group to cook for in your own town, and (if the time zones are good) we can set up a Google Hang-out to chat while we work.

You know you’re leaving work early on Wednesday anyway; why not carve out a couple of hours to come by and help? We’ll have a great time and help brighten up the day for some other folks as well. I can’t wait to see who wants to play!

Old friends and great food in Bozeman

For years, way before I’d ever given the least thought to learning how to cook, I spent many a weekend evening sitting at my friend Carolyn’s kitchen counter, glass of wine in hand, chatting with friends while she prepared us a great dinner. Then she and Barrie deserted Seattle for Bozeman!–What now?

Well, seven years without dinner is too long, so my friend Mary and I hopped a plane for a  weekend visit. Back in Carolyn’s kitchen once again! She’s a planner, so by the time we got there she already had her mise pretty much en place; while she put the finishing touches on her delicious chicken and squash tagine, our tasks amounted to the old ones of chat and sip.

I’ve become a city person; from the deck off my kitchen, I can touch the magnolia that shades my whole back garden, and I can nod at my neighbors digging in their vegetable plot a few feet away on the other side of my trellis fence. Barrie and Carolyn offer an entirely different proposition!-We are in the West now. Here’s my friend Mary, pouring herself a judicious glass of wine for dinner, in front of the sweeping backdrop that is Barrie and Carolyn’s back yard. And here are Barrie and Carolyn themselves, about to tuck into our dinner spread. I took the seat on this side of the table, looking across the dip and swell of the field to the blue edge of the mountains in the distance, so I could savor the dinner and the view as well.

(An aside: among their many talents, Barrie and Carolyn are musicians, and lately they’ve been performing with a Bozeman group called the DupliKates. Check it out!–Carolyn’s in the straw hat and slacks and Barrie’s behind that post on keyboard.)

Carolyn shared her recipe (below) for the chicken and squash tagine, which she actually made in a Dutch oven. Delicious! I’ll make it myself soon and let you know if I do as good a job as she did. But before I go, I just have to tell you about the next couple of days that Carolyn and Mary and I spent in Yellowstone Park!-A first for me. Have you seen pictures of Old Faithful?–I took some too, but it struck me as the tamest of the park’s features. The acres of steaming, muttering pools and vents that perforate the thin crust of the ground make the world seem about two days old! The commentary on the interpretive boards carries the ominous news that the timing or force of the numerous geysers has been altered repeatedly (and recently) by explosive releases of pent-up pressure. As I take in this information, I’m standing with say a dozen other people on a boardwalk over a pool of boiling water swelling up from a black worm-hole that coils down who knows how deep. Faintly, the question forms . . . is this a good idea?

The water in Yellowstone pounds down as well as boiling up. Before we left the park, we also climbed a few hundred steps down a metal stairway bolted to the side of a mountain to get a head-on view of the magnificent Lower Falls–then the next day walked to the platform at the top of the Falls (barely visible at the top right edge) for a top-down look.  So before I go back to my kitchen, I’ll leave you with this uncharacteristically outdoorsy shot of myself!

Carolyn’s Chicken and Squash Tagine

Ingredients

  • 1 recipe Moroccan spice mixture (see recipe below)
  • 2 pounds meaty chicken pieces (breast halves, thighs, and drumsticks), skinned
  • 3 teaspoons olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, cut into wedges
  • 6 large garlic cloves, halved lengthwise
  • 5 to 6 threads saffron, crushed
  • One 2-1/2 to 3-pound butternut squash, seeded, peeled, and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 cup chicken broth or water
  • 1 cup golden raisins
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 1/4 cup snipped fresh parsley

Directions

  • Prepare the Moroccan spice mixture. Rub the chicken pieces with 1 tablespoon of it.
  • In a 4-quart Dutch oven, heat 2 teaspoons oil over medium heat. Add the chicken. Cook, uncovered, for 6 to 8 minutes, turning to brown evenly. Remove chicken.
  • Add the remaining 1 teaspoon oil to the Dutch oven. Add the onions, garlic, and saffron. Cook and stir over medium heat for 2 minutes.
  • Add the squash. Sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of the spice mixture; toss.
  • Add the chicken and broth. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 1 hour.
  • Add the raisins; cover and cook for 10 to 25 minutes more until the chicken is done and squash is tender.
  • Meanwhile, make couscous. (You can find it with the rice and other grains in your grocery store; follow the directions on the box.)
  • To serve, put the couscous on your serving platter and top with the chicken mixture. Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with parsley.

Moroccan spice mixture (makes about 3 tablespoons):

  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1 tsp ground cloves
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp ground pepper

Best-kept secret in town: Lunch at Seattle Culinary Academy

Did you know?– the students in the Seattle Culinary Academy want to serve you lunch! The SCA, part of Seattle Central Community College on Capitol Hill, has three (three!) different restaurants staffed by chefs-in-training who prepare the food and serve it to you in style. On top of that, in the summer they offer a special small-plates menu, which I sampled a couple of weeks ago. It was a big moment for me!–Earlier this summer I had watched these very same students learn to grow the  ingredients I was eating. And therein lies a story.

My connection to the SCA actually goes back several years, when my friend Donna and I took a series of evening cooking classes in the professional kitchen there. (Donna was good; I was . . . learning.) What a series!–stocks, soups, sauces, poaching, steaming, grilling, roasting, braising (who knew about braising?), eggs, poultry, pasta, grains, veggies, seafood, dairy–chef Hope Sandler marched us through weeks of hands-on cooking, with (miraculously) no casualties, other than one or two minor cases of blood-letting and mutual burning.

You’d think after that I’d never need another cooking class in my life! But I keep signing up, and one of the best I’ve ever taken was a two-day class offered by chef Sally McArthur at La Conner Flats, an 11-acre English country display garden and working farm north of Seattle in the Skagit Valley. After a full day of cooking in the farm’s Granary, we ate our dinner alfresco at a long table on the lawn, then played boules in the garden’s beautiful allée.

But Sally gave us more than a cooking (and bowling) class; she also painted us a picture of the lush fertility of the Valley (which is on the same latitude as France’s Loire Valley) and of the careful stewardship that sustains it. Besides getting acquainted with garden owners Bob and Margie Hart, we harvested tomatoes for our meal at the  Hedlin Family Farm nearby, and tasted Pasek Cellars berry wines in the garden’s gazebo. We munched on cheese from Samish Bay Cheese with the co-owner Suzanne Wechsler. And we learned about the many projects of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, an activist farming organization that I’m dying to tell you more about (and will–but that’s another story!). Suffice it to say that I immediately joined SPF and have been an avid follower of their activities ever since.

Small world!–At the beginning of summer the SPF newsletter landed in my in-box with a front-page story about the SCA! The connection?–The SCA was about to offer a course on sustainable food systems practices, organized around weekly field trips up to (you guessed it) La Conner Flats. It turns out that Bob (who is also president of the SPF board) worked with SCA chef and instructor Gregg Shiosaki to develop the course, now in its sixth year (nobody tells me anything). And each year, Bob sets aside a plot of farmland where the students can learn the “best practices for sowing, cultivating, and harvesting vegetables and fruit.” Long story short, thanks to Bob and Gregg, this year I got to tag along. (I’m putting together a micro-movie about the experience; stay tuned.)

These students know how to work!–Every week, they plowed, pricked, planted, hilled, and dug like old hands. And each week they loaded up their bus with crates of the farm’s produce for the SCA larder, harvested in part from the same fields that they had worked.

Which brings us back around to my small-plates lunch at the SCA! These same apprentice farmers were now, crisp in kitchen whites or servers’ black-and-white, staffing an entire buffet restaurant, from host station to prep, line, table, and service. Here’s how it works: you stop at the host station by the front door and buy tickets for 75 cents each (I got 12); the plates range in price from one to say five tickets each. You then wander from buffet table to buffet table trying to compose your meal out of the bounty in front of you; finally, you drop some tickets in a bowl and add another plate to your tray.

Chef Gregg was all over the place, dropping a word of advice here and showing a small trick of the trade there. After watching Gregg demo its preparation, I had to have the seared salmon salad with oriental vinaigrette; Claire prepared my serving beautifully, all the while answering a barrage of questions from me about the ingredients (lots!–basil, mint, cilantro, frisee, candied orange peel, grapefruit, orange, lime, pecans . . . I’m forgetting some). (I’m guessing she wanted to crown me with that pan.)

Next I zeroed in on the Skagit Valley farm slaw, presided over by Ryan, who also happily ran through the list of ingredients (cabbage, carrots, shredded snow peas, Fresno pepper . . .) At that point, I had to sit down and eat! The salmon salad and slaw made a nice combo.

For my next round, after mulling over a number of possibilities I went with the borek (a puff pastry with potato filling, with a red pepper coulis and feta dill dressing) and a Thai cucumber cup with olive tapenade and pan au lait. Did I mention that these guys get high points for presentation? Earlier, chatting with Rachel (that’s her in the first picture of the SCA buffet tables), I learned that she had first studied art; she loves food styling and presentation. I don’t think she’s alone!

Now it was time to choose a dessert, which is no mean task; SCA has a killer Specialty Desserts and Breads program, and they were really piling it on. Racks of desserts kept rolling out of the kitchen, and the dessert table looked as long as a football field. A flan? A cake? A pie? Meringue, anybody? But my ticket stash was as nearly empty as I was full, so I settled on a scoop of lemon-basil sorbet. The perfect last bite!

In the dining room, Alice and Richard were serving, and at a slow point I got Alice to tell me a little bit about the program’s curriculum. One of their required courses explores the psychology of human relations; they really think about the roles that food and eating play in our sense of well-being. It struck me that they were doing a good job of translating a small part of that thinking into the concrete actions of unobtrusive, pleasant service.

So, for less than $10, I had an excellent meal prepared and served by a whole crew of diligent, delightful professionals-in-the-making. And afterwards, I strolled a couple of blocks over to the new location for Elliott Bay Books and spent a few minutes browsing through the new releases. A great way to turn a lunch hour into a mini-vacation!

The small-plates program is over for this summer, but the Square One Bistro opens on Wednesday October 5th and the One World dining room opens on Thursday  Oct 6th. The Buzz, open now, offers baked goods and pastries (and coffee, natch). (The days and times vary; before you go, check the website for details.) But this is one secret that nobody should keep–you can get a really great lunch at the SCA!