Friday, December 31, 2010

Words to relish: Ode to a poet

In these anticipatory hours leading up to toasting the new year, I’m indulging in some poetic language and imagery that has all the sparkle of champagne, the smooth spicy richness of that final seasonal eggnog. In her musical hymn-like book, New Mexican poet Pat Mora pays homage to the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda by writing a collection of her own “adobe odes” in honor of everyday things, many of them tied to home and hearth. In her lyrical musings, an adobe house is a “honey-hive, sun-baked loaf,” a “dream cave” containing “beans simmering for centuries.” Her chiles are “flamenco queens” laden with a blaze that tastes of “a sweetgreen fire.” Colorful quacamole is “parrot-sassy,” chocolate imparts “dusky layers of possibilities,” and a lemon is “a little canary nun” that embodies “the inwardness of prayer, outpourings of clear radiance.”

 An ode can be made to anything, and she sings exuberant praises for skin, tulips, rain and workers with equal precision. In applause of the apple, that “ruby story,” that “firm flower,” she writes:

“The first bite best,

a sweet river on the tongue,

the flesh innocent until we began to chew

and felt a hunger,

companion now to the grave.”

By blending the occasional Spanish word or phrase into her verse, she announces her Hispanic heritage and gives her writing a uniquely Southwestern flavor. A devoted dispensary of what she calls “bookjoy,” she’s also a prolific author of children’s books, a public speaker and event organizer, and she has plans for 2011: namely, to celebrate the 15-year anniversary of El dia de los ninos/El dia de los libros (Children’s Day/Book Day) in schools and libraries around the country.

Her poems make clear her deep reverence for the role of food making in the making of a life. “Feel the rotation,” she says to the imagined reader standing over a pot on the stove, “centuries of circular stirrings, hands spinning ollas, reveries.” One of her most beautiful tributes is her “Ode to Kitchens” (I’ve taken a couple of excerpts from the longer poem here), which leaves a haunting sense of why our best memories from year to year are fed by the joy found at the heart of the home and around the table:

    “Home within my home,

we explore

      your aromatic hiding places,

cabinets, possibilities,


     of pans and bowls…


Lids clang their incantations

            in the calligraphy of smoke,


of simmering soups —

         lentils, corn, tomatoes

              scents mingling with yeast’s

perfume. Dough’s modest chest swells

          with expectation under a cotton cloth.

Warmth works its daily mystery,

           alters elements

into a bouquet of bread...

    Gathered, we feast,

humble temple,

          perpetual family flame,

                     muse of metamorphosis.”

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Eat, Drink, Cook: Setting the table for the new year

Country singer Trisha Yearwood has a new follow-up to her first cookbook, Georgia Cooking in an Oklahoma Kitchen, featuring more simple, home-style Southern recipes. One recipe that caught my eye was the grape salad... whole seedless red and green grapes combined with a dressing made of cream cheese, sour cream, sugar and vanilla, pressed into a square pan and chilled in the fridge, then topped with a sprinkling of brown sugar and chopped pecans. (I have seen U.S.-origin grapes at the grocery store lately, although labels have to be checked carefully. I concede this dish might be best saved for when grapes from the Western Slope are in season again.) But such a refreshing salad/dessert combination (it can be served either way) sounded good this time of year.

I was intrigued to learn that grapes are eaten at New Year's for good luck in Spanish cultures. It is best to eat at least 12... one for each month of the year.

When I think of food to serve at the dawning of a new year, I think of a traditional shrimp linguine pasta, although I'm not sure why. As it turns out, seafood is considered a popular choice in many cultures.

Another food closely associated with New Year's is oranges. It's an important symbol of prosperity and luck in Asian cultures. I personally think the abundance of citrus is one of the food highlights of our year's coldest months. (Ranch Foods Direct will be featuring citrus recipes in our January newsletter, provided by Marcy Nameth of nearby Greenhorn Acres. It's such a pleasure to be the beneficiary of her great recipes and cooking ideas.) For new year's, we had planned on roasting a duck (not the most auspicious choice apparently), but on a more optimistic note, I'm also thinking about making citrus collard greens (after all the holiday cooking and eating, isn't everyone craving leafy greens?) and fluffy muffins studded with bits of real chopped oranges (which are great for brunch or can do double-duty as a dessert when topped with whipped cream or orange buttercream frosting... as an alternative, some type of orange bundt cake would also be seasonally appropriate.) For some reason, visions of sweet potato pie have danced around in my head. (Turns out that Yearwood's new book includes a sweet potato pudding that makes a decadent side dish or doubles as a dessert. It is made with cornmeal, eggs, milk, sugar and salt and topped again with pecans and brown sugar.)

And of course I've always heard that black-eyed peas and other lentils bring good luck. (Here's an article talking more about these traditions and including a recipe for "Hoppin' Juan," a southwestern variation of southern Hoppin' John.) So perhaps a good strategy would be to make a simple bean and sausage soup for New Year's Eve to serve by the glow of a fire. Or for something casual and festive, here's a recipe for a hot cheesy black-eyed pea dip for setting out with the last of the holiday treats and champagne.

It looks like this New Year's Eve will be a cold one, and it might even be a white one. Snuggling up at home might be the best bet, but take care if you plan to be out. Wind chills will dip dangerously low to mark this winter passage from one year to the next. 


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Redeeming one of the season's favorites: the potato

As a journalist, I sometimes come across stories that almost seem to write themselves.

That's how I felt when I heard about Chris Voigt, the executive director of the Washington Potato Commission, and his successful attempt to eat nothing but potatoes for 60 days. For Thanksgiving, he actually celebrated with a mound of potatoes, molded into the shape of a turkey, because he was determined to make a statement about how healthy potatoes really are.

He has an interesting theory as to why his stunt diet led to hundreds of media requests from all over the world. (I interviewed him shortly after he returned to his office after appearing with Matt Lauer on NBC's The Today Show.) He believes people like potatoes so much that they enjoy seeing them vindicated.

With all the sugar and salt-laden foods out there, and the popularity of carbs made by extruding paste through a machine (as is the case with most pasta) I share the view that the lowly potato seems to get unfairly picked on. After all, it is produced by a plant that grows in the earth, and there's no mistaking it's earthiness.

In one of my favorite nutrition books of recent years, The Jungle Effect: A Doctor Discovers the Healthiest Diets from Around the World — Why they Work and How to Bring Them Home, Daphne Miller devotes a chapter to the Icelandic diet, which is high in potatoes but results in a population with exceptionally low rates of depression. She draws an interesting connection between the sensory pleasure associated with consuming a food and the creation of mood-enhancing hormones that act like an antidepressant. She also offers several helpful tips for making the consumption of potatoes as healthy as possible. Start by choosing the smaller waxy-textured versions rather than the big conventional baking potato. (Local farms like Venetucci grew some fabulous multicolored spuds this past year.) Pre-cooking and then cooling them before eating, as is the case in making a potato salad, lowers their glycemic index considerably. Eating them whole (and with the skin) rather than mashed also yields benefits. And finally, adding a touch of vinegar also appears to have positive health attributes.

One revealing aspect of Chris' "diet" was that he had to eat 20 potatoes a day just to try to maintain his weight. While potatoes are filling (so filling it's hard to imagine eating 20 of them) they are actually relatively low in calories at 110 per average sized vegetable. Yes, it's easy to exceed this by heaping on the toppings, like cheese and butter. Still, Chris found it difficult to maintain his weight and actually lost 21 pounds over the 60 days.

An obvious alternative — that yields similar eating pleasure — is the sweet potato. According to 50 Secrets of the World's Longest Living People by Sally Beare, sweet potatoes are one of the most nutrient-packed vegetables you can find. They offer a similar smooth and hearty consistency to a potato with less carbohydrate and even more nutrients, including the beta carotene that gives them their cheery orange color.

With Christmas only hours away, I'm thinking about how potatoes are an affordable indulgence. Since Colorado is one of the largest producers, you can always get them locally grown. Mashed potatoes seem practically inevitable next to an equally decadent slice of meltingly tender Callicrate Beef prime rib. And how many Christmas Eve traditions involve a hearty ethnic soup (such as a creamy clam chowder) enhanced by the presence of potatoes?

Here's to enjoying all the blessings of the holiday season... and refusing to condemn potatoes, eggs, red meat, real butter, whipped cream and the other various villains out there that in fact have plenty of redeeming qualities and have fed humans well for centuries.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Eat, Drink, Cook: A revival of kitchen creativity

Shortly after Thanksgiving, food writer Abigail Carroll published an opinion piece in the New York Times explaining that while the holiday feast honors the traditional gathering of pilgrims and Indians, the meals in the days that follow typically pay homage to another time-worn tradition: leftovers.

She explained that through history the popularity of leftovers rose and fell with what was happening in the culture at large. In truly ancient times, food preparation was difficult and time-consuming, meaning leftovers were practically a necessity. With the industrialization of work and food, leftovers lost their status and were even stigmatized. Hard times have tended to bring them back into vogue. She writes:

"With two world wars and the Depression, leftovers enjoyed a resurgence. Eating leftovers came alongside victory gardens, home canning and meatless and wheatless days as a form of kitchen patriotism. In 1918, 'Foods That Will Win the War and How to Cook Them' encouraged women to turn meat remainders into soup, and cold muffins into toast. By the late 1930s, reliable home refrigerators made storing uneaten food significantly easier. No longer was it necessary to pick at the same dish for consecutive meals until it spoiled. Appliance manufacturers published cookbooks with advice on putting, as Frigidaire advertised, a 'lift in leftovers.' In the 1950s, Tupperware became available followed by Saran Wrap and Ziploc bags, and since the late 1970s, Americans have been 'nuking' leftovers in microwaves for instant snacks and meals."

Even so, leftovers in the modern age have almost been eliminated in some households, she concludes, by processing that has extended the shelf life of many items to near infinity as well as "countless venues for eating out."

Growing up on a farm, a day spent slaughtering chickens or rabbits meant a certain sameness for many meals in a row. Today, as I find myself continually cooking for just one or two, a pound of beef or package of chicken breasts can go almost as far. Part of the fun of cooking is reusing leftovers in creative ways so that it isn't obvious that the same meat is being eaten at yet another meal. Variety is the spice of life. I like to have a couple of meat items "in play" (thawed and waiting in the fridge) and trade off between them as I go from meal to meal.

On the topic of meals likely to result in leftovers (at least for small families), a recent issue of Parade, the weekly insert that appears in the Denver Post and other newspapers, featured the poet Maya Angelou sharing a "Sunday dinner" recipe from her second cookbook, Great Food, All Day Long, just out this month. Potential for leftovers aside, another aspect that makes her Mixed London Grill (above) look so appealing is the diversity of ingredients. A carnivore's dream, it calls for bratwurst sausage, lamb chops, pork loin and sirloin. What really intrigued me was mention of the lamb or veal kidneys. "Kidneys have wonderful flavor, and yet few Americans eat them," Maya told Parade. Take it beyond kidneys: Americans don't eat nearly enough highly nutritious organ meats, in part as a phenomenon of the same industrialization that has made leftovers unnecessary. As consumers, we can eat the steak of the steer or the breast of the chicken every time, even though this is obviously not how animals actually occur in nature. The rest of those carcasses do go somewhere, maybe to be used in pet food, maybe shipped to a less industrialized and poorer country where the people can still make the equivalent of a feast from a head or a hoof. (In that regard, we Americans would do good to revive some of their creativity and try a little harder to use a wider variety of parts.) 

I confess, I'm actually uncertain about making this dish with a beef kidney. But I do have some chicken livers and gizzards left from a recent whole chicken processed on-farm at Callicrate Cattle Company (You can see how the birds were raised and processed in these pictures). And the beef livers at Ranch Foods Direct come from animals fed a strictly natural diet (no growth promotants) — an important consideration when buying and preparing organ meats. (The liver acts as a filter during digestion and poses as something of a sponge for unhealthy residues.)  No doubt the cleanness of the liver has become less of a consideration to a large scale beef industry that is mostly selling steaks, ground beef and roasts (not organ meats, so much.) But it's important if you want to practice eating in more rustic and creative ways, which also tend to increase nutritional diversity.

Yes, it's potentially healthier to eat more meals at home and downsize your life, if possible, so there's adequate time to engage in the "domestic arts" — perhaps to even go so far as growing and slaughtering the chickens, as well as eating them... (keeping in mind, of course, that most things are better when optional).

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thank a farmer

“The disconnect between the accelerating pace of life and our natural human roots is making our hunger for tradition and a simpler life ever greater. When we garden rather than buy from the grocery store, when we intentionally buy from people who have chosen a rough-hewn life in order to produce something truly good, we are saying, whether we realize it or not, that we are craving something. There is a natural human instinct to be in touch with our roots, to use our hands, to create things. And regardless of the ever-widening gap between modern life and the natural world, it is nearly impossible to eliminate that instinct.”  Foodie blogger and traveler Georgia Pellegrini in the introduction to Food Heroes: 16 Culinary Artisans Preserving Tradition

As a holiday with food at its center, Thanksgiving is a good candidate for thank-a-farmer day. We could all probably make our own list of favorite farmers, food artisans and culinarians as a fun and thoughtful exercise. (That's Patrick Hamilton from Venetucci Farm, above.)

It just so happens that Thanksgiving caps off National Farm-City Week, which has been celebrated since 1955 with the intention of building “interdependence between rural and urban citizens.” In our modern world, farmers and consumers need each other but also tend to stay in different camps. To be human is, by necessity, to be consumers of a sort and also simultaneously producers of another sort. So were we all better off in prior decades when the farmer and the consumer were one and the same? Or is better now that a few farmers can choose to farm wholeheartedly, while the majority of others apply themselves toward other pursuits, with a monetary exchange to mediate between all of these various specialized efforts?

It’s hard to arrive at a firm answer, except to say there are always trade-offs. And to suggest that our society has likely swung too far from its agrarian roots on this particular pendulum. Unfortunately, many more people would like to farm than can make it financially viable. (Same with writing and other intrinsically rewarding creative pursuits.) Thus we have people who grow their own food and read about food growing and keep their hands in it in small ways… engaged, avid consumers. And if they work hard at it, they can become models of self-reliance, the old tried-and-true formula of the farmer and consumer wrapped up into one.

All of us can be thankful for those areas in our life, those windows of opportunity, that do allow for simplicity, quiet thoughtful engagement and peace of mind and heart. We can deliberately touch our roots, use our hands, create things — and celebrate others who do — while hopefully working to make the world a place where people have the opportunity to do personally meaningful and rewarding work, where quality of life is recognized and valued by society as a whole. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Eat, Drink, Cook: Pumpkin Stuffed With Everything Good

From the first moment I stumbled across the recipe for Pumpkin Stuffed With Everything Good, I had to try it. I already had the perfect candidate: a beautiful little pie pumpkin I picked right from the vine at Venetucci Farm that I've been saving for something special.

One of the many things I love about Hethyr Pletsch, the personal chef who put on a holiday cooking class last weekend at Ranch Foods Direct, is her enthusiasm for ingredient substitution and experimentation. This is also true of Michele Mukatis, who taught a series of cooking classes this summer through her business Cultivate Health, and it's probably true of all foodies: part of the art of cooking is constantly improvising.

When I finally had a chance to try this recipe (an easily revisable mixture of meat, cheese, fruit and nuts roasted inside a pumpkin) I was improvising from the first. In the waning days of the farmers market when winter squash were plentiful, Smith Farms had an abundance of acorns in a glorious range of shapes and sizes. I chose one resembling a small pumpkin, thinking it would be great as a table decoration and then later for cooking. Over the weeks since, it even started turning orange. (Maybe the plant actually cross-pollinated with a pumpkin.) Anyway, it looked like it needed to be used up faster than the pumpkin, and it also had this perfect little stem on the top for a handle.

The results were beautiful and delicious. I had my moment of doubt first cutting into the squash (it's not easy to cut out the trap door on top and clean out the insides, but it is doable.) It also didn't take much more than an hour to bake (due to the fairly small size.) The spicy Italian sausage links from Ranch Foods Direct and the red wax-rind creamy melty Gouda cheese I used were excellent in it. (I didn't use bacon like the original recipe suggested, though I could have mixed it in. The sausage did seem to be a good choice.) I was reluctant at first to use bread in mine, so I included quartered fresh mushrooms as a filler. (Okay, I just happened to have day-old bread, so I did go ahead and use some of that too.) You could experiment with rice or a risotto pasta (I'm thinking about trying shredded cabbage) or go more in the direction of sweet (think dessert material) rather than savory (spectacular main dish.) But our savory version, with snipped fresh rosemary sprinkled in, was divine, a fun and flavorful one-dish meal (dish provided by nature).

After the two of us had dinner, we still had enough flesh left on the insides of the squash to scrape out and use later for a variation of curried pumpkin chicken chowder (a recipe from Hethyr Pletsch.)

At this time of year, a time for stuffing turkeys, I have to say it's almost as dramatic and satisfying to stuff a pumpkin to put in the middle of the table. And certainly, a possibility is to do both! Pumpkin Stuffed With Everything Good is as wonderful as it sounds.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Agriculture and culture

There's linguistic beauty in the way the word agriculture wraps around "culture" at its core.

Ethnic foods are particularly good at illustrating the connection. Attending a Mennonite Relief Sale recently, I was surrounded by crowds enjoying the chance to eat rare traditional foods and interact within a unique sub-culture. Words of greeting at such an event run along the lines of “Are you Marvin Neufeld’s son? I’m Paul Penner’s sister…” followed by standard farmer talk such as “Are you dry out your way?” rapidly devolving into a subtle contest over who is drier. (“We did get two inches back in September, but it’s all gone now…” “Well, we’re still waiting on our two inches.”) As the daughter of a Mennonite-raised farmer, I already know it is always too dry or too wet, too hot or too cold, on every farm.

Traditional German Mennonite food is stout, starchy and somewhat bland. The pre-eminent challenge traditionally wasn’t the aesthetics of looking sleek but surviving with enough energy left over to do hard physical work. Meat and potatoes, sausage and bratwurst, verenikas blanketed in white cream gravy (pan-fried pockets of dough stuffed with dried cottage cheese) New Year’s cookies (fried donut-like dumplings) and tart cherry mousse (a pudding made with flour, cream and sugar) are common iterations. One of the healthier dishes is the homemade sauerkraut; cabbage was often the closest my ancestors came to getting their greens. The dietary world has changed, obviously, but these are foods flavored by memories, passed on as a cherished inheritance.

(A note about the German sausage: it makes a great partner with the big gorgeous head of cabbage from Marcy Nameth and the boys at Greenhorn Acres. Add in a little diced Applewood smoked bacon, chopped red onion, cherry tomatoes — is there anything on earth better than a cherry tomato? — chunked up baked winter squash, grated cheddar and rosemary... maybe my new favorite herb, in part because it thrives in winter. I’ve also turned some of the cabbage into a simple slaw for making fish tacos with flaky chunks of halibut from Ranch Foods Direct topped with chile-flecked peach chutney, an ode to our wonderfully long Indian summer.)

Memories make food taste special: I went on a quest this fall to find a Hubbard squash for my mom, who fondly remembers my grandmother growing and baking them on their farm in North Dakota. In recent weeks, I lugged around the big oblong blue-tinged gourd the size of a turkey before finally delivering it to mom's kitchen. (Susan Gordon at Venetucci Farm warned me not to leave it outside or in my car where it might freeze.) A home gardener, cook and canner (also the product of a Mennonite upbringing), mom recently invited me to a saved seed exchange in her rural community featuring a woman who has managed to preserve ancient strains of native purple corn and calico-colored beans. The theme of food as connected to a culture, as a window on the past that might help us make a better future, seems to spring up everywhere.

I have to wonder if the amount of interest in Ranch Foods Direct's recent small-scale slaughtering demonstration, hosted by Venetucci Farm, is another example of the hunger people have to connect food with a context, with people they can meet and talk to, with work that they can understand and participate in and even learn to do themselves. As the great animal welfare pioneer Temple Grandin says of her recent book and movie promotion tours, people are genuinely curious and interested in how food gets from the farm to the table. One basic lesson of seeing a 1,000 lb. animal slaughtered is to understand the enormity of the undertaking, that the lives that keep us fed can't be taken for granted.

Then there's Emma Piper-Burket, a filmmaker I heard about recently who is making the connection between food and culture by asking important questions about what is happening in Iraq, birthplace of the world’s wheat. Why is the original breadbasket now forced to import grain? Her Iraqi Seed Project explores threats common to every agrarian-based economy, explains why so many food and agricultural traditions are becoming a rare treat, rather than a vital part of the fabric, in modern culture.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Words to Relish: Food for thought from the Land Institute

“… The soul’s bliss and suffering are bound together like the grasses…” From “Twilight: After Haying,” a poem by Jane Kenyon

The Land Institute has taken as its symbol an unassuming tuft of prairie grass. The part of this plant we normally see is only the tip of the iceberg, however. When founder Wes Jackson appeared at Colorado College a few years ago, the small grass plant he displayed was eclipsed hundreds of times over by a vast web of filigree roots that rambled on beneath it for several feet. This deceptively unobtrusive plant is the perfect metaphor for the Land Institute’s own mission: re-establishing the notion that the people of the rural plains come with a similar root structure that is just as invisible, vast, and profound, a resource worthy of respect and preservation, a foundation for building on, rather than for simply plowing under and forgetting.

I grew up on a mid-sized farm a stone’s throw from Jackson’s Land Institute, which is located on a winding gravel road just outside Salina, Kan. Once a year, when the Land Institute holds a festival in a barn and brings together an eccentric audience to hear from a chorus of countercultural prophets, I try to stop by and savor the early autumn sun glinting on the blooming sunflowers and migrating monarchs, the ripe apples and pears spilling from scattered trees, the views of the Smoky River in this beautiful but quiet spot.

Kentucky writer and philosopher Wendell Berry was on the program again this year. (He and Jackson have been close friends and collaborators since he first appeared at this same event 30 years ago.) Despite having traveled 700 miles west, Berry talked unapologetically and at length about the attributes of his own native land, a fertile topic he has plowed repeatedly in his career. By the time I left I was looking around at the sorghum fields fringed by hedgerows and silo-studded farms with the passion and gratitude of the perennially homesick. Berry’s contention — in books like his recent Imagination in Place — is that our souls require us to re-inhabit our roots, our families of origin, our native communities and landscapes, in spite of a culture that has taught us to denigrate those things in the name of progress. For example, he makes this observation of his college years (which resonates with me): “The question before us, seemed to be, not how we might fit ourselves and our book knowledge into our home landscapes, but how we would fit into our careers, which is to say our exile.” Of course, Berry is famous for ending his own exile by returning to a small farm in Kentucky (as he describes it, “about a mile from the house where my mother was born and raised and about five miles from my father’s home place”) after graduating from Stanford and living briefly in New York City (the pre-eminent literary capital, then and now). A phenomenal talent, he managed in spite of remoteness to publish prolifically and to make the choice of going home a fertile theme of his work.

It was in reading Imagination in Place that I came across the lyric fragment above from a poem by Jane Kenyon. (Former poet laureate Donald Hall and his wife Jane also left New York City to live at Hall’s family farm in rural New Hampshire in the later years of their lives.) It’s a line that echoes again the solemnity of the native grass and the humanity of the dwindling population that continues to live in concert with it.

Kent Wheatley, the founder of Seed Savers Exchange, also spoke at the Prairie Festival. Coupled with hearing Bill McDorman, who spoke earlier this year at Colorado College, I was prompted to return again to a book I’ve long intended to read about one of the world’s original seed savers: Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nicolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine by ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan.

What fascinating armchair travel! The obvious theme here is the importance of biodiversity. But on dramatically vivid display is the remarkable ingenuity and adaptive wisdom of farmers, whether growing crops in the remote highlands of central Asia, the mythical Nile River Valley, the richly blessed Mediterranean or the impoverished Hopi and Navajo Indian Reservations of the American Southwest. Despite growing up in the farm fields that comprise the American breadbasket, I needed this refresher course on the breadth and wealth of Ethiopian agrarianism and other ancient hotbeds of agricultural innovation. When agriculture dies out, so do diverse crops. Perhaps most importantly, so do the farmers. Maybe today’s monoculture farming is drifting toward something resembling the unsatisfying wasteland of middle management that inhabits modern jungles of corporate cubicles. Work should be independent, engaging, worthy of humanity’s intellectual capacities, completely unlike most of the current jobs open to jobseekers. Reading Nabhan’s book revives the question of what global culture values, how it measures progress, wealth and achievement, and what these views mean for the lifestyle of the average person.

The Land Institute is unique for being a private institution shaped around the whims of its brilliant if at times curmudgeonly founder (recipient of a prestigious MacArthur grant and a “Right Livelihood” award). Jackson’s own Becoming Native to this Place is a beautifully written classic on the unsettling of rural America (to use a term taken from the title of a Wendell Berry essay collection that plows a similar furrow.) It should probably be required reading in all college agriculture programs, if only for the sake of discussion, but it’s not.

As the days get shorter and the evenings longer, any of these books are a potential source of satisfying immersion. And for a nice introduction to Wes Jackson, read the opening pages of an extensive interview with him published in October issue of The Sun magazine. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Eat, Drink, Cook: Apple Salsa

“I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend./And I keep hearing from the cellar bin/The rumbling sound/Of load on load of apples coming in…”

— From the poem After Apple-Picking by Robert Frost

Last night I roasted what will likely be the season’s last homegrown tomato. The forecast is calling for a freeze this week. The long and prodigious growing season is ending. But a salve for this is that apples are still in abundance. Lately I’ve started thinking about substituting apples for tomatoes in a salsa. It can be done by mixing two tart cubed apples, 4 T. lime juice, 1 Jalapeno pepper, 1 Anaheim pepper, ½ medium onion (finely chopped), 2 T. cilantro, ½ c. chopped walnuts (lightly toasted), a dash of fresh ginger and ¼ tsp. salt.

 I can see scattering this over a dollop of sour cream in a bowl of butternut squash or pumpkin soup. Or served with make-your-own chips. (Brush tortillas lightly with water and sprinkle them with a combination of one quarter cup sugar and 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, then cut them into wedges and bake them in a 400-degree over for 6 to 8 minutes until lightly browned.)

That idea reminds me of the baked pita chips personal chef Hethyr Pletsch suggested back in January to go along with her Curried Pumpkin-Chicken Chowder. As it turns out, Hethyr will be teaching a free holiday cooking class on Nov. 13 at Ranch Foods Direct. Her approach to the holidays is to mix tradition with a few new twists, simple surprises like a salsa made out of apples or a soup made out of carrots, something that celebrates what’s in season.

It’s not surprising that apples have often been the subject of books and poems. In Gary Paul Nabhan’s Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine, he describes visiting the forests of wild apples in Kazakhstan, where domesticated apples likely originated, rich with the unusual fragrance of so much ripe fruit. He recounts that the famous Russian botanist Vavilov found the apple forests evocative of the mythical Garden of Paradise. There, the diversity of apple-bearing trees and shrubs is unmatched, with at least 56 native variations. But even in that remote area of Central Asia, food production is being replaced by urbanization. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cow-pooling: a "primal tribal-fire thing"

The food revolution — from farm to table — is really a story about seeding and savoring communities.

That’s the premise of last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, a feast of articles assembled around the centerpiece theme of “eating together.” Among the topics covered: the exploding phenomenon of on-line food reviewing; how a combo design studio and community café called PieLab revived an impoverished Alabama town; and a humorous column by a grumpy CSA member explaining how his vague annoyance at righteous locavores was overcome by good will, good vegetables and healing food advice.

Food writer Kim Severson’s contribution is on “the Cow-munity,” the unusual grouping that forms when casual acquaintances get together to share a steer. “Like any social circle, the cast of characters in this cow community has changed since the first animal was split in 2007,” Severson writes. “People have drifted in and out like subletters, taking over shares for those who walked away.” She goes on to profile the current members of one New Mexico-based cow confab and their challenges and satisfactions as they divide up the carcass. One woman describes her desire to share an animal with other local town folk as “that primal tribal-fire thing.”

Learning to eat the whole cow is a lot like learning to eat food in season. It expands both your kitchen creativity and your palate while offering abundant nutritional diversity. is a website intent on rounding up those interested in joining the trend. Would-be cooperators can go there to get matched up with others who want to split some cow shares (and there’s no requirement that they ever meet in person.) If you visit the site you’ll find that at least in Colorado, the featured provider is none other than Ranch Foods Direct. This is a concept that takes the store’s popular beef bundles (which offer a volume discount) to a whole new level.

One benefit of cow-pooling is knowing where your meat comes from, as a 2009 article published by TIME magazine explains. But as the New York Times proposes, it’s also about being part of a “cow-munity.” And it re-introduces the notion of responsible use of resources, or food frugality. Ranchers have been harvesting whole animals for the family food supply — filling the freezer lock-stock-and-barrel versus buying supplies in town on a piecemeal basis — for generations. It’s a rustic, practical tradition taking on new life in the age of the Internet.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Eat, Drink, Cook: Squash-stuffing weather

This is when

The last sun-ripened tomatoes

Overlap with an abundance of

Winter squashes —

Seasons mingle

In the air, on the tongue.

Reluctantly it seems, the lingering summer is transitioning into fall, with air crisp as a cider apple and sufficiently chilly for stuffing winter squashes, in my case, a delicata from Venetucci Farm, with creamy mild flesh, tender and very edible skin (I never remove skins unless absolutely necessary: they contain fiber, nutrients and often flavor… plus, I’m lazy that way), festive yellow striping and made-for-two manageable size. To fill one squash, I cooked and crumbled a half pound of bulk ground beef from Ranch Foods Direct, also adding chopped onions and minced shallots, chunks of apple from a tree down the block, even a few crabapples (what can I say: it was an amazing fruit year and even the crabapples turned out plump and sweet.) After cooking the meat and transferring it to a mixing bowl, I added grated sharp cheddar, also from Ranch Foods Direct, along with hunks of a good Swiss, and seasoned it with chopped sage and rosemary along with the salt and pepper, then placed it in the cavity of the halved delicata to bake for about 30 minutes. (I baked the squash in an inch of water in the oven for about 40 minutes before assembling.) What pleasure to experience the smell and flavor of this all-in-one dish that allows you to use what you have on hand and what you especially like. (Another variation for right now: slow roasted tomatoes and the last of the season’s basil with spaghetti squash.)

This is the season of abundance, and urgency. The temperature suddenly dives, and it’s a reminder that ripeness peaks, the days of the year are numbered, darkness is gathering in each day’s corners.

There’s an antidote to seasonal angst: Preserve It! — a big, gorgeous book that describes how to use natural preservatives like salt, sugar, olive oil, vinegar and alcohol to extend the useful life of fruits, vegetables and even meats. I prefer not to stand over a heavy steaming water bath for hours (especially when it’s possible to get good quality frozen and even canned produce) but lazy cook that I am, I can still find intriguing options in these pages, for example, a red onion marmalade, oven-dried tomatoes or apple rings, basil ice cubes or candied fruit peel. It covers a broad spectrum of possibilities, from home brewing to making sausage or sauerkraut.

If nothing else, I love looking at these bright glossy pictures, imagining today’s treasures preserved like jewels and then rediscovered and celebrated while the earth is still cold and bland. Apparently, I’m not alone. During last week’s The Splendid Table radio program, host Lynne Rossetto Kasper examined the national phenomenon of group canning sessions and the emergence of “Canning Across America,” an organized effort to “revive the long lost art of putting up food.” If you are so inclined, both websites offer additional ideas, reference books and recipes.

Speaking of abundance mixed with urgency, this is the final week for the Colorado Farm and Art Market, which ends for the season on Saturday, Oct. 16. Gather together some colorful heirloom tomatoes and winter squashes and celebrate with a harvest table.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Feast of tomatoes heralds peak of local food

Nothing captures the sweetness of late summer better than slow roasted tomatoes.

Unless it’s a simple BLT with juicy slices of heirloom tomatoes and Applewood smoked bacon from Ranch Foods Direct. (By the way, Slow Food of the Pikes Peak region is hosting a BLT tasting party this coming Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at the Margarita at Pine Creek.)

It’s been too warm and mild so far to stoke a yearning for baked squash, or cabbage, or apples, or pumpkin. For now, it’s still tomato, corn and pepper weather.

Roasting hunks of meaty plum tomatoes mixed with chopped red onion (consider adding corn kernels cut from the cob and chopped up chili peppers), sprinkled with fresh herbs and drizzled with olive oil, in a 200-degree oven for three to five hours, yields fragrance and flavor with minimal effort.

For many of us, the current abundance and variety of tomatoes represents the peak of the food-growing season. The weekly Colorado Farm and Art Market (which continues through Oct. 16) is the ideal spot to harvest the cream of the crop, including Green Zebras and Old German Stripes from Larga Vista Ranch or black cherries from Country Roots Farm (both located along the Arkansas River east of Pueblo.)

All of this luscious produce also means the return of Peak to Plains “Local Food Week” (Sept. 21-26.) According to administrator Michele Mukatis, the highlights include an evening of food and music at Front Range BBQ on Wednesday to raise funds for the local food effort and a recipe contest and community potluck on Sunday afternoon at the Care and Share Food Bank Warehouse. Ranch Foods Direct will be there grilling meat. (The Peak to Plains Alliance website lists all the activities going on throughout the week.) Meanwhile, Bon Appetit, food service provider for Colorado College, is gearing up for their Eat Local Challenge on Sept. 28. Consider stopping by one of the dining halls on campus that day for a menu consisting entirely of food grown within 150 miles. (The Miami Herald ran an excellent article about it this week. Read it here.) Finally, the CC student farmers are hosting around a hundred guests at tonight’s “Harvest Dinner” banquet at Beamis Hall.

Tomatoes are a barometer of the modern food system. They tell the story of how production and processing and distribution have changed traditional foods and the way we eat them. To follow this saga, Arthur Allen globe-trots across the world of tomatoes in his book, RIPE: The Search for the Perfect Tomato. Here’s an excerpt:

“There are about seven thousand known fragrances in foods, four hundred in the tomato alone. The fragrances are called volatiles, and they are low-molecular-weight compounds that generally have little nutritional value. From an evolutionary perspective, however, the aesthetics of smell and taste carry important information for survival. Many of the fragrances and tastes we enjoy in food help us and other members of the animal kingdom distinguish nutritious foods from dangerous or lackluster ones…

The most abundant volatiles in tomato fruits, it turns out, are linked to valuable nutrients in the plant…

… Domestication has had a negative effect on tomato flavor and smell. And this is a far-from-trivial concern… Tomatoes, a wholesome food with clear nutritional benefits, have been bred to taste plain, while food chemists and the companies they work for have gussied up their corn-syrup-based snacks with savory essences culled from nature. As nutritionists recommend that we eat more fresh fruits and veggies, the food industry, until recently, has been making fresh fruits and veggies less interesting, while adding new taste thrills to processed foods. This is not… a healthy policy.”

   From RIPE: The Search for the Perfect Tomato by Arthur Allen

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Eat, Drink, Cook: Spicy Corn Salad

Hot sauce vinaigrette?

That was a new one on me, but added just the right touch to finish off a fresh crispy Spicy Corn Salad, redolent with the soon-to-fade pleasures of the late summer season.

The salad and generous chunks of Pumpkin Cranberry Bread were sample dishes Denver Chef Adam Fisher (above) made and handed out to help celebrate Colorado Proud School Meal Day at Centennial, an elementary school in the Denver Public School System. Lunch also featured a variety of Colorado-sourced food items with a savory entrée of Callicrate Beef and bean burritos in a green chili sauce.

Food and nutrition services director Leo Lesh is making a hefty commitment to support local and regional food providers, including Ranch Foods Direct. Already after the first month of the new school year, he’s well on the way to increasing his investment in Colorado grown food more than ten-fold. “It’s good for everybody,” he says.

Lesh met Mike Callicrate, founder of Ranch Foods Direct, at a Chicago meeting of School Food FOCUS, a national initiative designed to enable large, urban school districts to redirect food purchasing toward healthy, local and sustainable vendors. It addresses “a critical need to surround children where they learn and play with the food they need to thrive, while playing a pivotal role in anchoring regional food systems.” Lesh, who is purchasing ground beef for his roughly 87,000 students from Ranch Foods Direct, really emphasizes the educational component, saying he wants children to learn about healthy food so they will make good choices even when they aren’t in school.

Chef Fisher, who helped conduct a culinary “boot camp” for school cooks this summer on how to use more whole fresh foods in meal preparation, said the quality of the meat this year has been outstanding. One of the cooks said that while it was a lot of work preparing meals from scratch, it was also rewarding because she knew it was healthier for the kids.

According to the food service director, the students love hot and spicy foods. In the classroom, they made the corn salad and suggested ramping up the heat.

 Spicy Corn Salad

 ½ (15 oz.) can corn (OR I watched the chef cut the kernels fresh from a cob.)

1/3 (15 oz.) can black beans

½ bell pepper, green or red, chopped

chopped zucchini

chopped celery stalk

3 T. chopped onion

Wash, trim and chop zucchini, celery, onion and pepper. Drain corn and beans, rinse. Gently mix salad ingredients together.

In large bowl, mix together following dressing ingredients to pour over salad.

1 ½ T. lemon juice

1 ½ T. canola oil

¼ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. pepper

2 T. hot sauce

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Growing Good Food: School food worth celebrating

The interns who run the student farm at Colorado College (above, that's Rebecca Levi, left, and Jillian Gold, working at the farm along Fountain Creek) are taking inspiration from Bill McDorman, who gave a passionate lecture on campus last month about the magic of saving back seed and took time during his trip to visit the student farm.

For the first time ever, they are hosting a seed exchange during their Annual Harvest Dinner, a fundraiser and food festival planned for Sept. 16. (McDorman advocated turning potlucks into seed exchanges rather than just recipe exchanges.)

“It’s a celebration of everything we’ve done this season and a display of local food,” says Gold, one of three paid interns. “It’s a fundraising event, and it’s open to the community as a form of outreach. We have a lot of loyal followers, but we also welcome new people. We’ll talk about what we do and how the garden plays into the local food movement.”

Tickets are $30 for individuals, $50 for couples and can be reserved by e-mailing Make your reservations soon, as the intern-hosts expect a sell-out!

Gold, along with fellow interns Levi and Alix Hudson, have worked on boosting production from their small wooded acreage adjacent to campus this year and are supplying everything they grow to Bon Appetit Management Co. at Colorado College. It is then served in school dining halls or at catered events, often with signs indicating its origin.

Just a reminder... the public is invited to eat at any of the dining halls on the CC campus throughout the year and weekly menus are available on-line. You will find that the menus are often built around meat from Ranch Foods Direct and produce from Arkansas Valley Organic Growers, a Ranch Foods Direct preferred supplier. Bon Appetit at Colorado College gets as much as 60 percent of the food they serve at any one time from local sources, and it doesn't get any more local than growing your own.

Head Chef Ed Clark says the students are “professional” and “very knowledgeable” about the food items, deliver excellent quality, high yield and long shelf life for the kitchens and add to the college mission of sustainability.

“It helps on so many different levels,” he says. “It brings the community together. It makes everybody proud to eat something that was grown two blocks away and just pulled out of the ground yesterday. Not many places can say that.”

For a longer article about the inspiring CC student farm and its interns, read my article published recently in the AG JOURNAL.

Seeds Are Worth Saving

(This is a recap of McDorman's wonderful lecture at Colorado College last month, published in the Ranch Foods Direct September newsletter)

Open pollinated seed results in plants that are near replicas of the parent, whereas most of today’s popular seed for everything from garden vegetables to field corn is hybridized, or crossbred, bearing results far less predictable. As Seeds Trust founder Bill McDorman explained during a visit to Colorado College last month, the widespread adoption of hybrids following World War II brought the tradition of seed saving to near extinction.

Another casualty was flavor and variety. Thirty years ago, after graduating with a degree in philosophy, he set out to gather seeds from the world’s best tasting vegetables and soon learned that his quest would require traveling to some of the most isolated, remote and non-commercialized villages left on earth.

In Siberia, with a crisp alpine climate not unlike our own, he discovered “a genetics lab for flavor” in the form of thriving well-tended gardens and avid gardeners who carefully saved seed for generations and lovingly named lines of vegetables after their own children. They lived by a judicious and self-reliant philosophy: “always only plant half.” As it turned out, McDorman was able to rescue some of their heirloom seeds from anonymity and before more political and social instability descended on the region.

Today, he’s using to fund a series of seed-saving schools and inspiring others to turn old bank buildings into seed banks, old libraries into seed libraries, and recipe exchanges at potlucks into seed sharing picnics. “Every flowering plant produces seed. It’s magic you can take part in,” he says.

As more of the world’s seed becomes hybridized and even genetically modified — not to mention captured, owned, licensed, restricted and monitored — McDorman has a delicious source of hope that food production will take off in a different direction. “We have the secret weapon,” he said. “We have the best tomatoes.” 

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Relish these words: A vanishing world of artisans and poets?

(CAPTION: A week's worth of food in Italy, from the photo essay Hungry Planet: What the World Eats.)

The closest I have ever been to Italy was a brief layover at the airport in Zurich on my way to Denmark for a meeting of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. Slowly descending over Switzerland, I gazed down at small country villages, each with an ornate church at the center and fringed by small flocks of sheep in hilly green pastures, and thought it was possibly the most beautiful place I’d ever seen and vowed to go back someday.

I can’t help feeling a similar reverence for Italy, birthplace of Slow Food and the Slow Food manifesto, of outdoor cafes and jewel-like bakeries, routine meals as grand occasion, of poets, artisans and romantics. If you share similar inclinations, I’m delighted to pass along a must-read in last Sunday’s New York Times: Is Italy Too Italian? From Taxis to Textiles, a Nation Chooses Tradition Over Growth. It opens with a visit to an elegant businessman who ages fine wool and cashmere for six months before crafting it into his own hand-designed clothing.

Possibly your response — and clearly that of the article’s — is ah, how quaint... And how increasingly unrealistic.

It’s to the article’s credit that it doesn’t sentimentalize or gloss over the occasional irritations of living in a medieval world, suggesting that even crafters guilds are vulnerable to improprieties. However, the dilemma posed — quality (of life, of products) versus economic growth — is a familiar one to Americans as well.

"… Of course the worship of growth has its limitations. The American economy is vastly more robust, but instead of family-owned bakeries, which seem to dot very hectare of Italy, we’ve got Quiznos."

Italy is "clannish," self-possessed and distinctive, and (as the article reminds) has never brought upon itself a housing bubble or banking crisis. But the political situation there shares an important parallel with our own, namely, public policy battles over: 

  • product (and food) labels revealing more transparency into where and how they are produced; 
  • the interests of producers versus the interests of financiers and merchants;
  • the value of preserving tradition, art, culture and "way of life" concerns while the world globalizes in the name of “growth” and “progress.”

As our Italian textile manufacturer says:

"… I am fighting with all my strength to make people understand that this country is destroying itself in order to advance the interests of just a few people who are unfortunately members of the most powerful caste of this country."

And, later:

"It is a hard world for poets."

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Relish these words: Cheered by cherries

Just as the plump, wine-red cherries from the Western slope of Colorado ripened (Ranch Foods Direct gets them from the Glenn Austin family at Paonia) I came across a book at the library I’ve long wanted to read called Cherries in Winter: My Family’s Recipe for Hope in Hard Times. Author Suzan Colon, a New York magazine publishing exec, describes being laid off during the current recession but finding herself spending more time in the kitchen, cooking and sharing family stories with her mother, drawing inspiration from women of earlier generations who lived with more uncertainty and got by on far less.

She writes: “I’ve learned that there’s a difference between showing up for dinner at my parents’ house and making dinner with my mother: as the ingredients go into the food, the stories come out of the making.”

The stories teach her that being poor doesn’t mean living poor, if you remind yourself to splurge occasionally on something simple and fabulous like winter “bings,” fine French raisins juicy with “joie de vivre” or a new blue porcelain vase in a store window available for the price of eating only bread and applesauce for dinner.

Another timeless lesson: Change what you can, and make the best of the rest. Looking back over her family’s journey and reflecting on her own, she writes: “Sometimes what looked at first like more rotten luck turned out to be fate’s little crooked smile.”

Hers is a heart-warming book for dispelling the chill of somber economic times. As publisher Random House describes: “It makes you want to cook, it makes you want to know your own family’s stories, and, above all, it makes you feel rich no matter what.”

She includes a few old family recipes, including this simple treatment of a picnic staple that makes use of the earthy, robust potatoes now in season:

German Potato Salad

4 slices bacon

1 cup diluted vinegar (1/2 cup vinegar plus ½ cup water)

1/4 cup sugar

6 good-sized cooked potatoes, diced

3 onions, diced

Cut bacon into small pieces and brown in frying pan. Add vinegar and sugar and allow to cook together until heated and sugar is dissolved. Add to cooked diced potatoes and diced onions and allow to heat through.