root cellar salad, and the value of a potato

root cellar vegetablesOur root cellar is a thing of wonder: boxes of sawdust and sand filled with roots from the garden: carrots, turnips, parsnips, rutabagas, mangels, and salsify.  Parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas are full of flavor, and complement potatoes really well--if you haven't tried them in awhile, it's worth a venture.  You can even make mashed parsnips just like mashed potatoes, just with a bit of a peppery flavor.  Mangels are related to the beet, and are sweet and delicious.  And salsify is like a long, skinny parsnip, with a mild flavor that's great in soups or roasted dishes.

The root cellar is chilly enough that you wouldn't want to slowly browse, but not cold enough to freeze.  Imagine: you just run downstairs and grab what you need for the soup, or throw together a pan of veggies to roast.  

Gives a new meaning to the word "store."

The roots need watering just about once a week, and the sand and sawdust hold that moisture and keep the roots in good condition.  But as you can see from the picture, little greens pop up from the crown of the root, as the plant continues to grow, even under such different conditions.

root cellar salad greensAnd lucky for us.  

These little root greens are a tasty reminder of the summer that's passed.  Sister Carol Bernice, who cultivates the lettuces, went down to the root cellar the other day to harvest.  The salad that was made was delicious, with a crisp and a crunch that are hard to find in the wintertime.

Living off what we grow means taking a long view, thinking ahead to how best to preserve food for as long as possible.  We use up the roots first, because the cellar can't preserve them indefinitely; then, the foods in the freezer; and finally, the dried, dehydrated fruits and vegetables.  We processed these crops as they came in, beginning with the spring peas, which await in the freezer, to give us a taste of May, even in the coldest of winter.

The amount of thought and care that goes into these crops vests them with value, and my close connection to the work that cultivated them means that I see these foods in new ways: in a potato, I see much more than a golden oval starchy root, I see Sister Helena Marie on her knees, "hilling" or pulling dirt over the potatoes in the early stages of their growth; I see Bill spraying the plants with a milk and water mixture, to try to prevent blight; and I see Sister Carol Bernice and Sister Emmanuel out in the garden with potato forks, turning soil to find little treasures, and their smiles when they bring a full basket into the barn.  And in the barn, I see Sister Catherine Grace, who heads up our preservation and storage efforts, sorting through the potatoes, leaving them out to cure.

In every stage, there is our hope and our toil.  And so we admire what we've cultivated, gathering around the kitchen table, praising the particular yellow-gold of this potato, how easy it is to slice, how delicious it tastes.  This love of food--not just as an ingredient for culinary skill, but as part of the amazing diversity and beauty of creation--was one of the first things that attracted me to this Community.

Recently, I saw a sign in a grocery store window advertising 3 pounds of potatoes for $1.00.  It was shocking.  How could all that effort and care be worth, or even just be exchanged for, only a buck?  I know that grocery stores lure people in with cheap staple goods, counting on people buying processed foods at inflated costs when they get inside.  But I was saddened, nonetheless, that most of us are so disconnected from the experience of growing food that such a price seems reasonable.  How could a farmer make a living selling potatoes at that price?  How could they be grown with care and attention, at that price?

The answer is that they can't.  Prevention Magazine recently asked the experts which foods they'd never eat, and non-organic potatoes are on the list.  Here's why: they're sprayed with fungicides when they're planted as seed potatoes, the plants are sprayed with herbicides during the growing season, and then the potatoes are treated with some other chemical to prevent them from sprouting while they sit in the warehouse or grocery store.  That's thrice-doused, not twice-baked.  That's a commodity potato, with all the energy going to making each plant produce as much as possible with as little human attention as possible.  

removing potato eyesRemoving sprouts from shriveled potatoesWe've got a weird expectation that all our food look perfect.  I was surprised to learn, for example, that potatoes that have grown long sprouts and are all shriveled up are still perfectly good to eat.  You just remove the sprouts, boil them to rehydrate them a little bit, and then cook as normal.  But until now, I've always thrown out sprouted potatoes, thinking they were no good.  How much food do we all just throw away?

There's a difference, I would argue, between a commodity potato and a potato grown with care. This is why I hope more and more people will start to patronize farmers markets, and get to know the people who are growing your food.  

If we can re-establish the connection between the farm and the table, between growing, preparing, and eating food, perhaps we can revitalize the role of family farms in local economies, move toward more nutritious meals, and improve our health through more mindful eating.  

To take a minute, and really see our food, to appreciate it, to become nourished by it . . . this is what I'm learning here at the farm, working in the dirt, learning about how food grows.


love and cooking

In the last few years, I've developed a passion for cooking--for the smells, tastes, colors, textures of food, and for the delight that people can experience eating food that is prepared with love and creativity. There's something both meditative and artistic, I find, in imagining a meal and then bringing it into being.

I think that my love of cooking and my desire to become healthier were the two driving forces that brought me to begin farming, though that journey has taken a couple of years. Earlier on, the idea of buying organic food seemed like a luxury and a hassle at once. My local corner grocery store didn't carry much fresh food, and the vegetables in the produce aisle cohabited with the owners' cat. Trekking into Manhattan took time. I managed to become a pretty decent cook with canned and frozen items, but we ordered in quite a bit, too! Then, a few years ago, a grocery delivery company started delivering in my neighborhood. It was great, for awhile, until I became completely disgusted with the amount of plastic packaging used...Every week, we were throwing out a seemingly endless sea of containers. And while that company offered many freshly prepared foods, they were expensive.

Last summer, I realized that I'd been going to the gym for about a year, given up smoking (again!), and wasn't seeing many changes. I switched to a new trainer, who had me write down everything I ate, every day, and show it to her. This was an invaluable activity--it really made me notice food. I was already eating pretty healthily--yogurt and fruit, veggies and pasta, lean meats and grains and salad--but just writing everything down made me think about my body as a whole complex thing, about the relation to what I took in and what was happening as I strove to build muscle and improve my cardiovascular system. I started thinking about my health differently, about whether I really wanted to take certain things into my body...

When the economy started to crash this past fall, I got hooked on the idea of "recession cooking"--using low cost, healthy, and often out-of-fashion foods and making them as wonderful as possible. Around the same time, it seemed that everyone I knew was reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and other similar books (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver; What to Eat by Marion Nestle; Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlossberg).  And Mark Bittman, whose recipes I've long loved, was writing for the NYTimes in his "Bitten" blog about conscious eating and healthy foods (in early 2009 he published Food Matters: A guide for conscious eating).  So I started experimenting with sweet potatoes (grating them into hash browns with sage, roasting them and then baking them into muffins, steaming them and eating them plain), black eyed peas (great for soup with sausage and greens), cauliflower (amazing roasted, with a little olive oil, curry powder and garlic), and cabbage (tasty when briefly wilted in bacon fat and then baked with yogurt. Tomatoes, long roasted with cinnamon and garlic. Squid, braised with artichokes.  I began searching out recipes on blogs, from The Kitchn; Cheap, Healthy, Good; Food Renegade...the more I read, the more I became interested in and aware about the ethics of food, the problems with "industrial food", and how "pastured" animal products (grass-fed butter, milk and meat) is much healthier for us.

And as I became more attentive to the origin and quality of each ingredient, thinking simultaneously about cost, environmental/pesticidal issues, packaging and waste, and health/nutrition, I found that I wasn't satisfied unless I knew a lot about the food I was using to cook with. I wanted the food I used to meet a number of criteria. I wanted to support local farmers, so my food didn't have to use an airplane or a truck to get to me. I wanted to eat fresh, clean, healthy food that was nutritious to me and didn't harm any of the people who were producing it. I wanted to limit the amount of waste I generated, both by avoiding excess packaging and by using every bit of every bit. These all were related, intertwined.

And the more I thought about these issues, the more convinced I became that the cost--in terms of time shopping, time cooking, and the sometimes higher prices--were all worth it. The meals I cooked, and served to the love of my life, to my friends and family, and to myself--these meals are acts of love and faith. They say, to myself and to the world, that I believe in particular set of social and environmental concerns, that I am acting on and embodying my beliefs to the best of my ability.

I know that I can't always be totally ethically satisfied in my food shopping--sometimes you need to buy a certain thing, and it's out of season and so has to be imported from California or Mexico. And I know that sometimes you need to take a shortcut and have to buy prepared salad dressing rather than make your own. But I also know that once I devoted spending all day Sunday to cooking for the week--making a roast chicken or a stew, making 15 burritos and freezing them, cooking up some greens and some rice to last for the next few days...those Sundays were days filled with love and creativity, meditation and singing. Those were days that I was feeding myself and my wife, caring for us and thinking about the days ahead.

Perhaps it's a bit ironic that my journey deeper into my love of food and the ethics of food production has led me to move to a farm and away from my partner, who is still working in the city. We will see each other on weekends, and I'll come to the city for a "date night" every week. But I don't feel separated from her at all, and I think it's important for me to find a new path, a new profession that can feed me, and us, for the long term. So, for now, I'm learning about farming, about squashing pests by hand, about making yogurt from raw milk, about mulching and compost and mycelium, and about the wider networks of people and organizations interested in food, farming, food politics, and the future. I'll be writing about all of these topics in the weeks to come.

For now, I'll leave you with a taste of my cooking: zucchini fritters, cold curried cucumber soup with minted yogurt, and spicy string beans. All, except the olive oil, from our garden.

Zucchini Fritters--if you've grown zucchini, you might know this already. Apparently it grows in leaps and bounds, and some people get sick of it! So I've been looking up new recipes to keep the Sisters happy about their crop of zucchini, and so far, we've been loving it. I'll write about the raw zucchini "pasta" successes another day....

So, for this dish, I used a recipe from a blog that's new to me: Whipped the Blog. I had to tweak it, because we have two people here who are gluten intolerant. So I used two cups of white beans, which I mashed into a chunky pasty mass, and four eggs, to act as binding agents. And rather than grating the zucchini (because here we typically are cooking for eight people, and I had a lot to do) I just chopped the zucchini into 2"x2" size pieces and then pulsed them in the blender until they were little bitty bits. The key in this recipe is to salt the zucchini bits well, and let them sit for 1/2 hour, then squeeze them well. Zucchini holds a tremendous amount of water, and you need to release that so the fritters hold together.

Take that squeezed zucchini and add to it mint (or dill) and lots of scallions, salt, pepper, and either breadcrumbs or smooshed white beans, and some egg. Then form into patties and fry in a little bit of olive oil. Voila!

As for the cucumber soup with minted yogurt, I got that from a Mark Bittman book that you can see on the web thru GoogleBooks...but it's super easy, and you could make it with many variations. First, take some yogurt and some chopped mint and mix them together, vigorously, for a few minutes...basically, you want to infuse the mint oil into the yogurt. Then remove the mint by straining the yogurt. Refrigerate that until you're ready. Then, take a bunch of peeled cucumbers (though you could use the peels, I suppose!) and pulse them into little bits, remove a third while it's still a bit chunky, and then process the rest til it's smooth. To the cucumbers, add some salt and a couple teaspoons of curry powder and lemon juice (or you could use chili powder and lime juice).  Let rest for two hours, if possible, so that the flavors can blend well.  Then, when it's time to serve, put some of the cucumber stuff in a bowl, then create a little well and put the yogurt in the middle.  Garnish with chopped mint and toasted nuts... Yum!  

The spicy string beans were an attempt at Chinese cooking--they came out great, but I probably will make them a little crunchier in the future, by reducing the simmer time.  I used this recipe here, but we didn't have Hoisin sauce.  That would have made it even better!  

The string beans didn't really "go" with the Mediterranean flavors in the fritters and soup, but I chose them for balance: they added some crunch and some spice to a meal that had a lot of soft, savory, and cool.  Whenever it's possible, I try to create that kind of balance, to engage as many senses and tastes as I can.  I would have preferred green beans to yellow beans, for the extra color, but yellow beans are what we picked that morning, so there you go!  


getting thriftier...

image2113631163.jpgI'm on the lookout for ways to be thrifty...and it's gratifying that there is commonly an overlap between saving money and being green. A few small changes can make a pretty significant difference. The biggest challenge is letting go of rushing--it takes more time to be thrifty, at least that's what I've found so far.

Here's a couple examples of what I've been doing--what about you?

•Cooking! I have been cooking up a storm, bringing my lunch, and eating out less and less. We got a great cookbook (cooks illustrated 30 minute meals) and having been trying new recipes every week.

•Eating way more veggies. I have been eating meat only rarely, relying on beans, eggs, soy and seitan for my everyday protein. Veggies are cheap and nourishing, and I'm learning how to prepare them more quickly. And they are much less taxing on the environment. Then, when you add a few shrimp to a dish, it's a treat. Above is a recent dish: stirfried kale and tofu, with a few shrimp and storebought dumplings.

•Buying dried beans instead of canned! Then finding a couple new recipes for the beans over the week. And fewer cans to recycle.

•Buying whole--unprocessed--foods. A plain head of lettuce is cheaper than a plastic box of prewashed greens, and there's less plastic to recycle or throw away. Loose dried fruit, seeds and nuts are cheaper than snackbars.

I'm thinking about making my own yogurt, too--apparently, you can just add half a cup of starter yogurt to a batch of milk, and it will turn into yogurt over a few days. I love yogurt and fruit, but there's always a little bit of regret when I eat it because the containers aren't recyclable through the city's program. However, I just read somewhere that Whole Foods will take some #4 and #5 plastics...

I've also started using one of those tin water bottles (don't leach chemicals from plastic into water, no trash!) for the last few months, and I love it. I carry it around, empty much of the time, then fill it with tap water when I need to. It's lightweight, and it's paid for itself many times already.

Next: going to start making my own household, nontoxic cleansers. And going to start learning how to cook with cheap, sustainably harvested fish, like sardines and squid.

learning to love greens

image2143898152.jpgSo I've never been a veggie expert or cheerleader, but I've been trying to eat better for the last few years, and especially the last few months. I think of Michael Pollan's mantra whenever I go shopping, which goes something like this: eat everything, not too much, mostly greens.

So I bought us some rainbow chard, and it was just beautiful! Here's how I prepared them, using a recipe I found on the Kitchn blog: Sauteed mushrooms, onions; set aside. Separated chard leaves from stems, then chopped leaves into smaller pieces. Blanched leaves in salted water, with red chili flakes in it, then drained leaves, mixed with mushrooms, onions. Then added half cup of breadcrumbs, half cup grated jack cheese, and three beaten eggs. Salt and pepper in mix, then bake for 25 min at 350.

Comes out like a casserole--delicious way to get some greens in you! Next, I'm turning to the Kitchn blog again for a chard stems recipe--basically baked with parmesan cheese...I will report on the outcome!