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 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!

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

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!

Locally grown meats–Get to know your rancher

I got the word late last week that Paulette Lefever Holbrook was making another run to deliver her meat products in Seattle last Saturday, so I signed up fast and scored my third community-supported-agriculture order this year from her ranch in Goldendale (about four hours east of the mountains and down near the Columbia River).

Paulette and her kids take service seriously! They wheeled my order not just to my door but to my open freezer. Here are Conor (thirteen years old now) and Madison (fifteen), about to lug the cooler up my front steps. (I introduced you to Conor a while back in a post about Lefever Holbrook Ranch lamb riblets.)

After we got the meat in the freezer, I got a family shot of Paulette, Madison, and Conor in my kitchen. This time, they brought me country ribs, baby back ribs, bacon, pork shoulder roast, and lamb shanks. Here’s my new stash in the basement freezer (with a few items left from before as well). And just to be nice, they brought me some cherries and a bag of gooseberries!

These people know how to work hard. In addition to the pork, lamb, duck, beef, and bison that I’ve bought from them so far, they raise turkeys and have just added rabbits. They raise all these animals, manage the slaughtering, and bring the meats to market. Not busy enough? They’ve added The Little Sheep Bakery, turning out artisan breads, cakes and cookies. They have garden beds with horseradish, shallots, garlic, and French string beans ready for harvest now. And lots of raspberries! Oh, and the catering business. (I think I’ve left out a few things.)

We sat out back and chatted for a little bit, and the conversation turned to leaf lard (fat from around the pig’s kidneys; remember my rendering exercise?). Paulette tells me that they are harvesting another pig this week; she will talk to the butcher about cutting me some of this “gold standard” lard.

I still haven’t been over to visit the ranch, but we talked about my coming over in September. (By then I should be able to pick up my next lamb order.) Stay tuned.

If you live in this region, look into participating in the CSA program that Paulette, Conor, and Madison offer. Don’t picture a side of beef hanging in your basement!–You can scale your participation to your family’s needs, and the meats arrive either paper-wrapped or vacuum-sealed in plastic. You will love the products and enjoy getting to know these great folks. Here’s how to get in touch with them:

  • Lefever Holbrook Ranch, 1098 Hwy 97, Goldendale, WA 98620, 509-773-3443
  • papa_pklh@yahoo.com