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.”