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Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

almonds-face-packsIt’s been a while, I know. My monkey mind gets interested in other things — like making pictures from other pictures, playing with my adorable little dog, and ghost writing for famous dessert mavens —  and my own food writing dries up like parts of California. Meanwhile, I worry about almonds, and apparently I’m not the only one. All I can say is, and not for the first time, is thank God for Mark Bittman. His post in today’s New York Times follows, but first, a recipe for ABC Butter, which is about fifty times better than almond butter.

ABC Butter — Equal parts raw almonds, raw cashews, and raw Brazil nuts. You probably want to start with one cup each, to avoid overtaxing your food processor. Throw all the nuts in the hopper, cover your ears, and process until the clatter dies down and the nuts turn into a grainy paste. This will take several minutes and will test your faith in me and in your food processor, but trust me: it will all come together. I like to drizzle in a tablespoon or so of almond oil, to make it a little creamier. Decant into jars and have at it.

 

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Fear of Almonds

Mark Bittman, New York Times Contributing Op-Ed Writer

June 3, 2015

I can’t tell you how many times in the last month someone has come up to me and said something like, “Do you think I should stop eating almonds?” or “I really miss almond butter, but I just can’t bring myself to buy it anymore.”

It’s typical: We focus on a minuscule part (almonds) of a huge problem (water use in California) and see it as the key to fixing everything: If only we stopped eating almonds, the drought would end! (If only we stopped eating “carbs,” we wouldn’t be overweight.) But there are parts of the state where growing almonds makes sense. Using dry farming techniques that take advantage of residual moisture in the soil and rainfall, there is some ideal almond country in California.

Almonds are not the enemy, and the water-use problem is not going to be fixed by Americans cutting back on them. [italics mine] Or, for that matter, on the other fruits and vegetables (“Oh my God, do you know how much water it takes to grow an avocado?”) of which we don’t eat enough. It’s going to be fixed by more rational policies; by figuring out what makes sense to produce in California and what doesn’t; by at least a partial return to regional agriculture; and — get ready for this — by more expensive food.

Nor is this elitist: More expensive food is more rationally priced food in a world where we stop cheating on environmental and labor costs. Spending under 10 percent of our income on food makes no sense, and yet that’s average for people in this country.bittman-circular-thumbLarge-v4

We can afford to pay the actual price of our food, a noticeable but slight difference for most of us. And if you worry about the effect of fairly priced food on those Americans who experience food insecurity, then join me in working to raise their wages, or in fighting for better subsidies for real food.

Whether driven by market forces or government regulation or — as is virtually guaranteed — by a combination of the two, water prices are going to go up. This is especially true in California, where some water is free or nearly so, and therefore is predictably going scarce. A more accurate term than “drought” might be “a shortage of water caused by misuse.”

Since agriculture uses something like 80 percent of the water in the state, as water becomes scarcer — and as we acknowledge that, and behave as if it’s scarcer — it’s going to become more expensive. And because such a significant fraction of our food is produced in California, problems for California agriculture are problems for all of us.

You can’t grow food without water, so planting crops that can thrive with less means that production of food that needs lots will shift to places with a more bountiful supply. We may import some foods to try to make up the difference, but it’s likely that the prices of those foods will rise also.

Just as using less water for food (“more crop per drop”) is imperative — as many prevailing irrigation techniques waste water — using less California land for agriculture is an option. Further, using the remaining viable agricultural land for foods that we should be eating more of makes perfect sense. How do we get to that place?

What would benefit the general population in the short term? Certainly not an avoidance of almonds, which are about as healthy and “natural” a food as most of us eat. What would rational water use look like? Or, more to the point, what might happen in California, and what might its impact be elsewhere?

Next up is more expensive water, and in many cases a marked increase in the price of foods that use the most: Meat and dairy, by far the thirstiest agricultural products because they’re so high up on the food chain. (Plants such as spinach and almonds “eat” carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, minerals from soil, and water; livestock drink water directly, but also eat grains, oilseeds and forage that require lots of water to grow.)

factory_farmFor a variety of reasons, beef prices have steadily increased in recent years, and consumption has steadily dropped. Dairy is a bit more complicated, but Americans continue to drink less milk. Neither of these products is intrinsically “bad,” although production techniques involving animal concentration camps and industrial processing make them less desirable. The point is that as water prices increase, the prices of these products are also likely to rise. Given that California currently produces about a fifth of the country’s milk supply, and a great deal of beef, that’s going to have a profound impact.

There may be a blessing in disguise here, though to see it we have to put affordability aside for a moment. As the price of industrially produced dairy and beef goes up, foods produced more traditionally and in regions where water is not so scarce will become relatively less expensive.

In short, the playing field will level out for more sustainable production methods. If we can make dairy production more profitable in the Northeast and see more grass-fed beef ranging throughout the rest of the country, we’ll have a higher-quality product and we’ll undoubtedly eat less of it.

That will relieve some of the pressure on California water, and allow the state to do what it does best: Raise fruits and vegetables, of which we should be eating more. Yes, including almonds.

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I thought I invented ABC Butter, but no. I’m not sure The Jolly Beetroot did either, but she has a lovely blog and I hope she doesn’t mind my reusing her photo. Perhaps my fondness has Australian roots.

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Thank goodness for Mark Bittman and his large media platform. He can reach multitudes with his sensible, Yes-You-Can messages about eating well in a crazy world. Bittman recently offered up a two-step guide embedded in an essay about food policy, reprinted in full below because it seems we can’t hear it often enough. Because people still get bent out of shape when they learn you follow a plant-based diet. Suddenly everyone is a nutritionist, qualified (and entitled) to scold you about not getting enough protein, calcium, calories, whatever. They get skittish about inviting you to dinner at their house, as if you were contagious or an alien much too difficult to please. Thus, I am grateful to those with the power to normalize — and make easily accessible — what seems to me a perfectly normal way to eat. Michael Pollan, of course, has honed it to koan-like elegance. Yes you can.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

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contibutors-bittman-thumbLarge-v2SAN FRANCISCO — To a large extent, you can fix the food system in your world today. Three entities are involved in creating our food choices: business (everything from farmers to PepsiCo), government (elected and appointed officials and their respective organizations) and the one with the greatest leverage, the one that you control: you.

We shouldn’t discount small farms and businesses, nor should we ignore relatively minor officials like the mayor of El Monte, Calif., who tried (and failed) to establish a soda tax to benefit public health. We do not always know where real change will come from, and certainly smaller operations may be more innovative and show us the way.

But for the most part we know where real change doesn’t come from: Big Food, the corporations that supply most of the food and stuff masquerading as food that’s sold in supermarkets, as fast food and in casual dining chains; and government, especially the federal government, which is beholden to and entranced by big business. Nothing new here.

imgresThere often seem to be more happy exceptions in industry than in government. If you look at the relatively new companies that have blazed a path for the food industry, you see, among others, Whole Foods and Chipotle. One demonstrated that supermarkets could sell better ingredients; the other opened the door to non-junkie fast food.

Neither is above criticism, and it’s possible both will be surpassed within a few years by newcomers with fresher and better ways of doing things. Still, it’s comforting to know that at least somewhere in the corners of this food system, market competition is giving opportunities to clever and even well-intentioned people to figure out how to make real money by actually providing the public with better food.

imgres-1I’m especially impressed with the way Whole Foods is innovating in the arena of labeling, gradually extending its own internal labeling system from fish to meats and now to fruits and vegetables. (As I said, though, they’re hardly above criticism.) Marketing is of course part of it, but shoppers who want to talk back to the supply chain by knowing where their food comes from don’t otherwise have a way to do that. If Whole Foods gives them what they want, then despite the “Whole Paycheck” nickname (and there’s some evidence that Whole Foods is starting to compete on price as well), those who can get there and afford it will favor it. This is progress, doing well by doing at least some good, and that can’t be said about most corporations involved in food. See, for example, the too-little-too-late attempt at transparency by McDonald’s.

We can’t rely on even well-intentioned souls in industry, but given the ball-dropping entity that is supposed to be vigilant regarding our health and welfare — the federal government — we have little choice. The legislative branch isn’t worth discussing, and leadership from the executive branch has been disappointing. Two issues could have been improved definitively in the last six years — the marketing of junk to kids and the existence of antibiotics in our food supply — and President Obama has accomplished little in either case. However stymied he may have been, we are looking at a landscape that hasn’t changed much, the exception being the improved but still hotly contested school food programs supported by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.usda-organic-scary

Even worse are the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, the last of which refuses to ban the routine use of antibiotics in animal production despite knowing that a ban is possible and desirable. It’s also dawdling on mandating an improved nutrition label on packaged food, probably because of industry taking “interest.”

We shouldn’t need to rely on Whole Foods for good labeling. Yet every day I’m asked, “How do I know that what I’m buying is O.K.?” It seems the better educated and more concerned people are about this, the more confused they are. Drill deep enough and the list to worry about becomes overwhelming: organics, genetically modified organisms, carbon footprint, packaging, fair trade, waste, labor, animal welfare and for all I know the quality of the water that’s being used to wash your organic greens.

I get this. I’m a worrier, too, though I tend to expend my neurotic energy on different topics. The overall environment means that you’re pretty much on your own if you try to eat healthfully in spite of the system, and you must take up that battle through a dozen or more decisions each day. But there are two big decisions that can put you on the right path and help you largely steer clear of antibiotics, excess sugar, unwanted chemicals, animal cruelty, and more.

Here then, is your two-step guide for an unassailably powerful personal food policy.

1. Stop eating junk and hyperprocessed food. This eliminates probably 80 percent of the stuff that is being sold as “food.”

2. Eat more plants than you did yesterday, or last year.

If you add “Cook your own food” to this list, it’s even more powerful, but these two steps alone allow you to reduce the amount of antibiotics you’re consuming; pretty much eliminate GMOs from your diet, lighten your carbon footprint; reduce your chances of becoming ill as a result of your diet; save money; cut way back on sugar, other junk and unnecessary and potentially harmful nonfood additives; and so on.

All without relying on corporate benevolence or the government getting things right. The power lies with you.

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Can’t help myself. Michele channels Lil Jon while reminding us to eat our veggies and vote.

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About that squash pie.

Let me begin by quoting my blogging idol Jennifer Hess, of Last Night’s Dinner, who devotes an entire page to the question, Where are the recipes?

My belief is that cooking is not a science – it’s a craft. And while there are standard ways of executing this technique or that, I simply don’t believe that there is a “right” or “wrong” way of preparing a particular dish.

To this I’d like to add that most people, myself included, are driven more by the need to put food on the table than to chase a recipe around town all day, fetching ingredients that will eventually come together in a Special Dish. I love special dishes, but day in and day out, the real question is, What can I make with things I have around the house?

Hence, the story of the savory squash pie.

It came to pass that I had two winter squash — an acorn from the Giant that was neither here nor there, and an evocative pear-shaped stripey thing from Erica the Veggie Girl that I later determined was a Red Kuri.

And on the passing breeze a mention of savory pie.

An idea thus germinated, off I went to Google in search of recipes, not so much to follow but to inspire. Not so much to define the end product but to paper the countertops while I rummaged around in the frig, the freezer, the pantry for compatible ingredients. I am not a strict constructionist.

An overly alliterative piece called the Sweet & Savory Sides of Squash suggested roasting to bring out the flavor of the squash. Excellent. I hacked open my beauties, dug out their seeds with an ice-cream scoop, and plunked them face down on a cookie sheet. When the recommended 45 minutes stretched to 75 in the course of a Skyping session with my daughter, the squash was rather mushier than I had anticipated but flavorful indeed.

A recipe for Butternut Squash Pie with Hazelnuts from Whole Foods provided a reasonable framework — i.e., basic proportions and an oven temperature — so I printed it out, set it on the counter and took to ignoring the parts I didn’t want. A frozen whole wheat pie crust? Quel horreur, not to mention I didn’t have one. I whipped up a one-crust batch using my basic vodka pie dough recipe, deleting the sugar and substituting cornmeal for 1/2 cup of the flour. I passed on the whole wheat, but feel free; garbanzo or nut flour might be nice too. Mix, chill, roll, freeze, partially bake.

Sauteed onions sounded good, so caramelized was better, sliced very fine. I was happy too that my squash was mush, not the called-for cubes, because my vision of this pie was not the chunky, plaid-shirt kind shown on the website. Neither was it Thanksgiving custard, but somewhere in between — a rough-textured compote, dry enough so a slice would hold its shape, moist but not puddingy. I ran the squash mush through a food mill, using the coarsest disk, then (because it seemed watery) microwaved it for a random 4 minutes.

So far so good. I tossed in the caramelized onion bits, an egg, a big handful of grated cheese (Parmigiano not at hand, I used the assortment of slabs and dried-out heels languishing in the refrigerator door) and a couple of slugs of white wine and olive oil.

And then collided with the complete and total absence of bread in the house. Did I really need a cup of bread crumbs? A reasonable facsimile was found in the freezer in the form of two frozen green corn tamales. Crumbled, in they went.

By now my pie crust was partially (eh, 2/3rds) baked and ready to receive the squash-onion-egg-tamale mixture. Hazelnuts sounded fabulous, but not as the recipe had them, baked in the pie where they were sure to get soft and un-nuttily translucent. This I cannot bear (except in a chestnut stuffing), so instead the nuts got minimally chopped, toasted in a pan and sprinkled on top to much, much better effect, along with scads of coarsely ground pepper. Bake at 400 degrees for about half an hour.

Can you or I replicate it exactly, harmonizing again the corn-husk steamed masa with oak-smoked paprika, onion caramel etc? Probably not. It’s enough 1) that it happened once and was enjoyed by a small, appreciative crowd, and 2) it serves as an example of how to carry on.

How to carry on, for example, when what one has in the house is this Miyazaki-esque batch of parsnips. Answer: cut it into sticks and toss with carrots and whatever other root veggies are lying around (I had a handful of cherry-sized turnips), olive oil, sea salt, a few sprigs of fresh thyme.

It helps to have things around the house that can be brought into service at a moment’s notice, lending a certain je ne sais quoi. I keep a few cans of coconut milk on hand as well as capers, lemons, limes, mustard, garlic, fresh ginger (keeps forever in the freezer), Siracha.

The main thing is to fool around.

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Due to not spending enough time in the car, which is where I get my radio, I managed to miss the fact that it’s All You Can Eat Week on WHYY’s Fresh Air, with Terry Gross.

I’m not crazy about the feeling of being a couple of beats behind. Like when I’m navigating with the help of my iPhone’s GPS, and the little blue dot on the map is just far enough behind where I actually am on the road that by the time the dot gets to the place where I’m supposed to turn, I’ve already past it. Or several beats: like when my daughter, as a sassy teen, in response to my cliched “Do you think I was born yesterday?” replied (without missing a beat) “No, I think you were born a long time ago.”

I love food because it’s timeless; it doesn’t matter when we were born. Timing does matter with cooking, and one can get anxious about getting that right, but for those of us blessed with food security, a cooking disaster is often hilarious and never the end of the world. On this, The Week After AYCE Week, we still have food and we can still talk about it.

Moreover, with Fresh Air, one can go back and capture the airwaves online and I urge you to listen to some of these, as they’re utterly fascinating and informative. You will learn, for example, why New York Times food writer Mark Bittman leaves steak uncovered in the refrigerator for days, so by the time he’s ready to grill it, it looks disgustingly dried out and crusty — but turns out delicious. (I have a pair of strip steaks getting old in the frig right now.) Also, in Kitchen Science: The Dinner is in the Details, Russ Parsons will tell you why onions make us cry:

In the water in the onion there are these little vacuoles — they’re little pockets of different chemicals. When you cut an onion, all those vacuoles are disrupted, the chemicals empty out, and they begin to combine with each other. You get these chemical reactions. … After the fifth or sixth generation of combining and recombining, the result is a kind of a sulfur gas, and, actually, it’s not clear at this point whether the sulfuric gas goes up your nose or goes directly to the eye. But either way, it irritates you and it makes your eyes tear as a result of that. And the great thing is that the chemical name for those chemicals are lacrimators from the Latin word for tear, lacrima.

So: just a few beats behind AYCE Week and in the spirit of overindulgence, this post is a piled-high buffet of some of my favorite food-related things, including a couple of the Fresh Air interviews, as well as blogs I follow and books I’m reading.

For an appetizer, there’s Sex, Death & Oysters, by Robb Walsh, “a half-shell lover’s world tour.” If the title itself isn’t enough to lure you in, let me just say (though I’m not sure what this means) that Walsh has been called “the Indiana Jones of food writers.” The book records a five-year, worldwide gastronomic exploration of the most beloved and feared of all seafoods.

Two juicy blogs will also serve as apps insofar as food porn gets one going. TasteSpotting is a “community driven visual potluck,” “a photo collection of recipes, cooking, baking, kitchen adventures, food industry and media news” and “the largest online dinner party you’ll ever see.” Similarly, foodgawker is “a photo gallery that allows you to visually search and discover new recipes, techniques and ingredients to inspire your culinary adventures.”

From TasteSpotting, via The Well-Seasoned Cook: Corn, White Bean & Squash Blossom Chowder – An end-of-summer transitional soup infused with musky herbs.

For our main course, an abundance of commentary about food, cooking and eating. That we make such a big deal out of something as basic as eating is reflective both of our civilization–our delight in creating delicious and beautiful things to eat–and the degree to which we are alienated from it. On this latter topic there’s no one better than Michael Pollan. In Defense of Food challenges the nutrient-by-nutrient approach — what Pollan calls nutritionism — and proposes an alternative:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

At a respectful distance on our table is Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Richard Wrangham’s proposes a new theory of human evolution he calls “the cooking hypothesis.” Apes began to morph into humans, and the species Homo erectus emerged some two million years ago, Wrangham argues, because we learned to tame fire and cook — which increases the amount of energy our bodies can get from food, which in turn gives our digestive tract a break from processing raw food and allows our brains to grow.

Interesting, but less fun than loading up one’s plate with Julia Child on France, Fat and Food on the Floor. In this Terry Gross interview, originally broadcast on November 14, 1989, Julia recalls being hooked on French cooking from the very first bite. She made it her life and spent the rest of her career guiding American amateurs like moi through the intricacies of French cuisine.

In the 1960s, you could eat anything you wanted, and of course, people were smoking cigarettes and all kinds of things, and there was no talk about fat and anything like that, and butter and cream were rife. Those were lovely days for gastronomy, I must say.

 Food52 is an industrial-strength blog that calls itself “a social hub for people who love food.” Creators Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubs provide scads of wonderful, searchable recipes as well as video tutorials on such things as how to make almond butter. (You put roasted almonds in the food processor, push the button and let them clatter around in the bowl until you think the motor is going to break. The nuts turn into a fine, pebbly sand–but not buttery–and you begin to wonder. Keep going and in another minute or two, like magic, the oils in the nuts will give up their resistance and the whole thing will turn into almond butter.) Food52 teasers:

We want to share our AYCE buffet with friends, of course, so let us join Last Night’s Dinner, another favorite blog though very different in tone and approach. LND is “a blog about what we’re eating. The focus is on dinners, which are mostly cooked at home.” Written by Jennifer Hess, it’s very personal and down to earth, with lovely close-up photos wrapped around stories not just about what she and her husband had for dinner last night but why she chose that meal, what happened when she went shopping for the ingredients, or grew them in her garden, and what their soon-to-be-born son will think of his first taste of spring peas. Reading LND like having a very creative, articulate next door neighbor with a lot to teach and the generosity to let you witness her young life unfolding.

Ready for dessert? Here’s my own rendering of Ancho Chili-Cinnamon Chocolate Bark, which I found one hungry afternoon on Food52. And here, from foodgawker via Verses from my Kitchen: A shortcrust pastry shell filled with custard and seasonal fruits.

Sigh. I’m ready to relax with a good book: this will be our cheese course. In Eat, Memory, Amanda Hessler (of the New York Times and Food52) has assembled the food-inspired recollections of several leading playwrights, screenwriters, novelists, poets and journalists. Tom Perrotta explains how his long list of food aversions almost landed him in an East German prison. And poet Billy Collins muses over his relationship with a fish he once ate.

What’s your story?



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Late summer, before Irene. Before we battened down the grill and turned the patio table upside down, before we had to pray that the the tomato plants, groaning under the weight of their palm-sized globes, would make it through the night. On one glorious pre-Irene evening, we found ourselves with the triple blessing of eggplant, peppers and summer squash from Shannon Chang; tomatoes from Erica Bowers Lavdanski; and a recipe from Alice Waters, brought to us by the amazing folks at Food52. Nothing for it but to make ratatouille.

If a perfect ratatouille exists, this just might be it. It is a rare dish that inspires so much indignation — so much ranting about tradition and propriety — as ratatouille, that seemingly unassuming melange of late summer produce from the Provençal countryside. And yet here I am, climbing out on a limb to tell you that Alice Waters makes a very, very good ratatouille — maybe the best. Don’t throw an eggplant at me just yet. Let me explain. — Kristen Miglore, Senior Editor, Food52

First, a note about our contributors.

Shannon Chang just sent us a delectable collection of vegetables from her organic garden in Winston-Salem NC, hand delivered by her son Michael, my daughter’s boyfriend. I’ve not yet met Shannon, but her son is an angel and the veggies sublime, so she must be pretty wonderful. Here are Alex and Michael next to a plane they learned to fly on a Living Social discount. Is this a great life or what?

Erica, from whence came the tomatoes, runs B&H Organic Produce, a small and growing market garden in Morgantown PA with her farming partner Paul Hartz. Every Wednesday, I pick up my half share of Erica’s CSA–a hefty box of whatever fresh vegetables I’ve chosen from that week’s list. And every Sunday, May through November, I pick up a few more at her stand at the east end of the West Reading Farmer’s Market. Erica’s CSA and the West Reading market are worthy of their own posts, but for now, here’s the Veggie Girl herself, sitting prettily atop her tractor.

Alice Waters is of course the legendary chef, author and proprietor of Chez Panisse in Berkeley CA who, back when it was radical, championed cooking with the finest, freshest seasonal ingredients that are produced sustainably and locally. I learned my early chops from Julia Child, but heartily welcome the paradigm shift Alice brought to the iconic ratatouille, described like this at Food 52:

In the schools of ratatouille, at one end you’ll find the disciples of the Julia Child method: Every vegetable must be cooked separately before they “partake of a brief communal simmer.” The eggplants are cut into slim rectangles; the tomatoes are peeled, juiced and slivered; the bell peppers must be green. Then all are layered into a casserole and basted heroically. Make this one when you want to feel reverent and perfect.

Julia Child took these pains to ensure that every vegetable maintained its dignity, without melting into a muddy soup. But leave it to Alice Waters, longtime champion of vegetable TLC (Chez Panisse turns 40 this week), to show us such rigor isn’t necessary. Somewhere between Julia Child’s perfectionism and just giving up and dumping everything in the pot at once, there is a happy compromise.

Waters’ recipe only fusses where it needs to fuss–over the eggplant, which does benefit from a brief time-out under a dousing of salt to draw out its moisture and bitterness. After a pat dry and browning session all its own, the eggplant behaves itself, turning sweet and bronzed with creamy flesh. For the rest, Waters simply adds the vegetables to the pot one by one to build flavor, but because they’re cut small (1/2 inch), they don’t cook long and don’t have a chance to inherit each other’s idiosyncrasies. A few smart, modern details pull this recipe further into the realm of genius: basil is delivered in two stages, via a bouquet that swishes along in the pot the whole time, and a smattering of fresh chopped leaves at the end. A pinch of red chile flakes sharpens the focus, and a finishing swirl of fresh olive oil pulls the sauce together.

Adapted from The Art of Simple Food and moi:

  • 1 medium or 2 small eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch dice (Shannon’s eggplants were the slim Chinese and Filipino varieties, so I used three of each–about a pound.)
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil (not EVOO, because you’re going to heat it up)
  • 2 medium onions, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 4 to 6 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1/2 bunch of basil, tied in a bouquet with kitchen twine + 6 basil leaves, chopped (Bunch, smunch: my basil comes from Bill’s garden.)
  • pinch of dried chile flakes
  • 2 sweet peppers, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 3 medium summer squash, cut into 1/2-inch dice (I had one, so that’s what I used.)
  • 3 ripe medium tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch dice (I had more, so I used more. Julia notwithstanding, this is a peasant dish.)
  • Salt to taste
  1. Toss the eggplant cubes with a teaspoon or so of salt. Set the cubes in a colander to drain for about 20 minutes.
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot. Pat the eggplant dry, add to the pan, and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until golden. Add a bit more oil if the eggplant absorbs all the oil and sticks to the bottom of the pan. Remove the eggplant when done and set aside.
  3. In the same pot, pour in 2 more tablespoons olive oil. Add onions and cook for about 7 minutes, or until soft and translucent. Add the garlic, basil bouquet, dried chile flakes, and a bit more salt.
  4. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes, then stir in peppers. Cook for a few more minutes, then stir in summer squash. Cook for a few more minutes, then stir in tomatoes.
  5. Cook for 10 minutes longer, then stir in eggplant and cook for 10 to 15 minutes more, until all the vegetables are soft. Remove the bouquet of basil, pressing on it to extract all its flavors, and adjust the seasoning with salt.
  6. Stir in the chopped basil leaves and more extra virgin olive oil, to taste. Serve warm or cold.
Living in Japan freed me from the tyranny of thinking I had to serve everything hot. No need to sweat that in most situations, especially of a summer evening. Somewhere in the course of the day, I grilled a few thyme-studded chicken breasts, which had a chance to cool while the ratatouille was in the making. Sliced chicken, ratatouille and a tossed salad with lemon vinaigrette, served on the still-upright patio table.
Itadakimasu, my friends. Thank you Shannon, Erica, Alice, Kristen, Michael, Bill and Etsuko (who taught me that room temperature was just right).

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This post about FoodCorps, like the last, is a reprint of an article that caught my attention and that I want to share with you. According to the USDA, more than 17 million children in the United States lived in “food insecure households” in 2009. The recession is making this worse, of course, and so is the confluence of peak phenomena such as peak oil, peak grain, peak fish and water. Peak means we’ve reached the point of maximum extraction or production and it’s all diminishing returns from here on out, which leads to diminished reserves, price hikes and insecurity for a lot more people, including perhaps you and me. 

Second-year Montana FoodCorps volunteer, Sarah Kester, and food service staff at The University of Montana checking out a fresh harvest of local melons, which they quickly bought and served up in the cafeteria.

At the same time, one in three children (and one in two children of color) is overweight or obese in this country. Indeed, demographic, epidemiological, and nutritional shifts have led to a situation unique in human history in which food insecurity exists side by side with problems of obesity and chronic nutrition-related diseases, even in the same household.

Therefore I applaud the launch of FoodCorps, although with Mark Bittman I wish it were 10,000 times bigger and had the resources to stand up to Corporate Food. Case in point: My friend Jadah took a cooking class last year when she was in 10th grade at Wyomissing High School, and in the unit on mac and cheese (really), the kids were not taught to boil noodles and make cheese sauce–which at least would be authentic and could be nutritious–but rather to choose among six microwavable brands such as Kraft and Hormel. This does not cut it as nutrition education. I’m also excited about some wonderful local initiatives in Reading PA, including PermaCultivate which has set up shop in the greenhouse in City Park and sells veggies on Friday at the Penn Street Market.

PermaCultivate is an educational non-profit organization that facilitates the growth of regenerative, resilient human environments and healthy, productive communities through permaculture demonstration, implementation, and consultation initiatives

Mark Bittman writes “on food and all things related in the New York Times. August 24, 2011– 

FoodCorps, which started last week, is symbolic of just what we need: a national service program that aims to improve nutrition education for children, develop school gardening projects and change what’s being served on school lunch trays.

I’ve been looking forward to this for months, because it’s such an up: 50 new foot soldiers in the war against ignorance in food. The service members, most of them in their 20s, just went to work at 41 sites in 10 states, from Maine to Oregon and Michigan to Mississippi. (FoodCorps concentrates on communities with high rates of childhood obesity or limited access to healthy food, though these days every state has communities like that.)

I’d be even more elated if there were 50 FoodCorps members in each state. Or 5,000 in each, which approaches the number we’re going to need to educate our kids so they can look forward to a lifetime of good health and good eating. But FoodCorps is a model we can use to build upon.

Curt Ellis, co-creator of the movie, “King Corn,” is running the show with Debra Eschmeyer, formerly of the National Farm to School Network, and Cecily Upton, formerly of Slow Food USA. FoodCorps is part of the AmeriCorps, from which it receives about a third of its budget. Most of the money comes from sources like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and individual donors.

Is FoodCorps necessary? The organizations that are fighting childhood obesity on the front lines seem to think so: 108 groups from 39 states and the District of Columbia applied to host FoodCorps, which chose to work at locations that had already begun to improve school food and needed help in expanding their work.

Children in Portland, Oregon, dig for potatoes in the summer garden program at Earl Boyles Elementary School. The nonprofit Growing Gardens is hosting a new Food Corps staff member, an offshoot of Americorps, in their efforts to combat child obesity by promoting healthy foods.

Potential participants were turned away at a crazy rate: More than 1,230 people applied for 50 positions. (It’s easier to get into Harvard.) Nor is this a program for the college grad who wants to do some soul-searching by playing in a garden for a year. “Many service members,” says Ellis, “have firsthand experience with the communities they’re serving. Some are going back to the towns they grew up in; others were raised on food stamps or overcame obesity. They understand these challenges from the inside.”

They’re also smart, well informed, and articulate; Ellis told me there wasn’t a day last week that he didn’t tear up from something that one of them said. (I’m going to post some of their initial sets of beliefs and, I hope, ongoing reports from the field on my blog.

FoodCorps members will be paid $15,000 for the year. On this they must find places to live and pay for food, though those without other sources of income are being encouraged to apply for help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (usually called SNAP, and formerly known as food stamps), so they’ll live like many of those they’re serving. (Those eligible will also receive a $5,550 federal education award to apply to their student loans when they finish.)

How, I asked Ellis, will we know if FoodCorps is successful? “This year we expect about 60,000 kids to benefit from improved food education,” he says. (This will be sadly easy to achieve: currently, elementary-age kids typically get less than five hours of nutrition education annually.) “Gardens will be begun or fortified to try to get kids more excited about fruits and vegetables; fresh food will be sourced from local farms; and parents and community members will be more invested in school food.”

FoodCorps will cost less than $2 million for the first year. Thus for less than a million bucks of our money we are getting a program that will start to roll back the $147 billion it costs us each year to deal with the health consequences of obesity, while changing the way thousands of young people grow up thinking about food.

Not to burst any bubbles, but let’s note that this in no way levels the playing field. That $2 million invested in FoodCorps — well conceived, raised with the best possible nonprofit intentions, and ultimately well spent (a bargain!) — was starkly contrasted last week with the $30 million that a new group of corporate farmers and ranchers intend to spend to promote the idea that they’re “committed to providing healthy choices.” As anyone who’s followed the news in recent years knows, agribusiness has done pretty much the opposite, relying on direct federal subsidies (also our money) to the tune of at least $5 billion annually to produce precisely the kind of junk food that is largely responsible for the tripling of childhood obesity in the last 30 years.

Here’s the problem: raising $30 million for a corporate public relations campaign to defend the rights of Big Food to continue to produce junk is easy; raising $2 million to promote healthy eating in our children is hard. Ellis says that his dream is to have 1,000 service members a year working in all 50 states by 2020. I say let’s have 10,000 by 2015.

But let’s end on a happy note: FoodCorps is up and running. Hallelujah!

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Let’s talk about mushrooms, shall we? They are so earthy, so fascinatingly tasty and completely un-cakelike. They are also the unsung local hero of my community, employing thousands of workers while unemployment hovers around nine percent. Until recently I thought those cinder block bunkers were meth labs, but now I know they house the time-lapse miracle of creation known as mushroom production.

Pennsylvania is the undisputed champion in US mushroom production, accounting for almost two-thirds of the 800 million pounds of Agaricus mushrooms produced annually. (Big family, Agaricus, including button, field, Portabella, and shiitake mushrooms–though not oyster–as well as a few toxic cousins better left unplucked.) Chester County produces the lion’s share, but my own Berks County is a contender as home of Giorgi Mushroom Company, which claims to be the second largest producer in the nation.

The first thing you need to know is that mushroom farming doesn’t stink. The composting process does, indeed it does. But once the compost is rendered fit for use and the magic begins, the smell is like that of a walk in the woods in the spring–the complex yet gentle aroma of earth coming to life.

We begin outside with the stinky business of making the mushroom compost. Horse manure and wheat straw (aka “stable bedding”), hay, corn cobs, cotton seed hulls, gypsum and chicken manure get mixed together in a compost turner and shaped into long rectangular piles called windrows. The windrows are sprayed with water, aerated and turned over a month-long period, during which time it gets mighty hot. Heat, ammonia and carbon dioxide are released, and the alchemical mystery of aerobic fermentation commences with the help of some very busy microorganisms. You can see the outgassing in this photo taken at Gaspari Farms, operated in Temple, Pennsylvania, by my friend and champion mushroom wrangler Joe Plageman.

Our goal is the perfect mushroom food, a medium hospitable to mycelium growth but not to the growth of anything else that might interfere. Step 2, therefore, includes pasteurization, which kills insects and other pests, and conditioning, to remove the ammonia. C’est voila, after absolutely everything has come together perfectly, we have a lovely, black, crumbly, odor-free compost, temperature 75-80 degrees, nitrogen content 2.0 to 2.4% and moisture 68-72%.

Despite its name, spawning, Step 3, bears a closer resemblance to shopping for breakfast cereal than a creepy movie. Mushrooms do produce their own spawn–spores, the fungal equivalent to seeds–but since (like so many things) they germinate unpredictably, mushroom growers buy it from the spawn store and mix it into the compost. This gets the mycelium going, the fungal colonies of branching filaments that bear the fruit we call mushrooms. Mycelium can be tiny, but until recently, there was one humungous fungus growing under the Malheur National Forest in Oregon–killing the trees and sending up “honey mushrooms” in the fall–that at an estimated 2,200 acres would have been the largest organism in the world.

Thanks to Joe, we are inside one of the chambers in a growing house now, which looks a lot like a bunkhouse for large, flat cowboys. The pasteurized compost mixed with the spawn and topped with a blanket of peat moss sits in darkness and seemingly idle in stacked wooden beds while the grower knocks him- or herself out monitoring and manipulating the temperature,  humidity, carbon dioxide, ventilation and a few thousand other things.

Time passes. And then: Houston, we have a pin. Pins are little teeny, tiny little dots that in the course of the next three to four weeks mature into buttons that mature into mushrooms. That then get “cropped,” or harvested by hand, during 3- to 5-day cropping cycles that can go on as long as mushrooms continue to mature, sometimes six to ten weeks. Hairnetted harvesters, typically Mexican, come in with collection trays and special knives, bending at the waist and reaching in the full length of their arms to cut the little darlings that have reached the desired size and plunk them into the boxes we buy at the grocery store. 

In honor of their labor and of the transcending wonder of the natural world, I made a batch of Marcella Hazan’s mushrooms with cream. More accurately, I wrested the wooden spoon from my friend Ann so she could attend to her delectable veal stew and sauteed chard. I washed and quartered a couple of pounds of Criminis, then sautéed them in small batches in clarified butter, which can get hot without burning. Never crowd mushrooms in a pan. They’re like turkeys–it’s not good when they get too close together.

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