Thursday, December 15, 2011

The ultimate "family restaurant"?

New York City restauranteur Massimo Galeano wanted to serve his customers the same traditional Italian dishes he grew up with and still craved. So he started bringing his mother from Bologna for weeks-long visits to handcraft the tortellini, ravioli, tagliatelle and other pastas he serves at Gradisca. At her flour-dusted table in clear view of diners, she rolls, shapes and stuffs the dough, conjuring a soothing presence that makes the meals feel truly home-style, in an age when the term "family restaurant" gets batted around a bit too lightly. Read the delightful story in the Dining Section of this week's New York Times.

And while there, here's another piece to enjoy: author Jennifer Steinhauer describes why we feel slighted with the frequent appearance of store-bought items at the neighborhood bake sale or pot luck. Her article vindicates my decision to make German Chocolate Brownie Bars at Halloween, even though I wasn't sure they'd appeal to trick-or-treating kids or protective parents. (By all appearances, they did, although the store-bought chocolate-dipped M&M granola bars ultimately proved most popular.)

In a world where so much of what we eat is conveniently mess-proof and cookie-cutter, it's nice to see that hand-made and one-of-a-kind can still hold its own. (And yes, even on those occasions when the pan of bar cookies is crispy brown on the edges while the center isn't completely done... and the harried cook scrambles for a remedy... kinda like the fourth quarter of a Broncos football game. Sigh.) 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Eat, Drink, Cook: The Potato Pancake Tradition

Over at Hungry Chicken Homestead — where blog writer Bonnie Simon says her citified chickens rule the roost — there's an opportunity to weigh in on the best way to make potato pancakes.

Bonnie is Jewish, and potato latkes are a traditional food for her family at this time of year, even if she and her mom trade friendly barbs over whether the potatoes should be blended or shredded first. (And don't we all know what those fun little food disputes can be like?)

Bonnie's story and recipe reminded me that my mom, who is not Jewish but rather of German Mennonite ancestry, often made potato pancakes for us when we were kids. (Hers were pillowy smooth rather than free-form shredded too. Maybe it's a generational thing.) Those tender pancakes were fragrant, warm and soft, perfect for cold winter mornings or long dark winter evenings on the farm. Comfort food, that's what they were. Bonnie's remembrances are feeding my own, and now I'm thinking about making some myself. Plus, group me with those who think potatoes have been unfairly demonized (Dr. Daphne Miller devotes an entire chapter to the healthy upside of traditional potato-centric diets in her wonderful book, The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from Around the World — Why They Work and How to Make Them Work for You.) My view: Fast food french fries, bad. Colorado potatoes with skins on, good. Especially during the winter.

For something leaner, lighter and literally greener, though, I couldn't help noticing a recipe from Gourmet (God rest its soul, my all-time favorite magazine before the clueless bean-counters parachuted into the Conde Nast corporate office and decided since Bon Appetit published recipes, too, the best literary food journalism available in print should be canned) for zucchini latkes. If you're like me, you find yourself craving all things green during these dark (but sparkly) days of plant dormancy. Here's a way to have your pancake, and eat something green too.

ZUCCHINI LATKES

MAKESABOUT 36 LATKES
  • ACTIVE TIME:45 MIN
  •  
  • START TO FINISH:1 1/4 HR
Add a little color to the Festival of Lights with zucchini pancakes that shine green. Lighter than potato latkes, they’re the Mediterranean cousins who’ve traveled north to visit family in eastern Europe.
  • 3 lb zucchini
  • 1 1/3 cups plain fine dry bread crumbs
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
  • About 1 cup vegetable oil for frying
  • ACCOMPANIMENT:

     
    sour cream
  • EQUIPMENT:

     
    a deep-fat thermometer
  • Grate zucchini using medium shredding disk of a food processor. Transfer to a bowl and toss with 2 tsp salt. Let stand 30 minutes.
  • Squeeze zucchini in batches in a kitchen towel to remove as much liquid as possible. Transfer zucchini to a large bowl and stir in bread crumbs, eggs, marjoram, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp pepper.
  • Preheat oven to 200°F.
  • Heat 1/3 cup oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat until it shimmers. Scoop 2 Tbsp mixture per latke into skillet (6 to 8 per batch). Flatten with a fork to form 21/2- to 3-inch pancakes. Fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side (adding more oil as necessary). Transfer to a paper-towel-lined baking sheet and keep warm in oven.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

There's a new chef in town


Though Chef Kevin Campbell, above, has a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Colorado State University, he claims to be largely self-taught as a chef... and what a chef he is! His appreciation of the best quality ingredients and his deft creativity in the kitchen all spring from one basic inspiration: he loves to eat. He came from one of those classic Southern families where cooking and eating were celebrated among life's greatest pleasures.

Kevin hosted a dinner for the local Catamount Institute at Ranch Foods Direct that was delicious and seasonal from beginning to end, with some wonderful little surprises along the way. He served butternut acorn squash soup (with mushroom Jack cheese and truffle oil) in rustic canning jars to start. As a "nest" for his tender roasted vegetables, he created a bed of what he calls "dirt:" an earthy crunchy combo of dried mushrooms, whole wheat bread crumbs, sesame, hemp and flex seeds studded with broccoli sprouts and arugula. He infused the warm mashed potatoes with beef marrow. Another ingenious addition was the farm fresh egg, soft-boiled, battered and fried to resemble a hush-puppy. Cutting into it released the golden yoke, which was intended to gently cascade over the top of the sliced prime rib roast for his decadent version of steak-and-eggs. (Whoa!) The caramel toffee apple pie to end was a typical autumn classic that was anything but ordinary.


Wow, this young chef is amazing; he's one to watch. And another thing: he's nice! Mild-mannered, humble, polite: a rarity in this age of celebrities, pundits and out-sized egos.
 






Monday, October 31, 2011

Discover "long" pie pumpkins


We're in that transitional time when the golden days of fall can suddenly give way to a burst of winter. I like to think of it as squash-stuffing season. In the last few weeks, I've made everything from zucchini boats (with the last of the summer squash) to, finally, one of my favorites, pumpkin-stuffed-with-everything-good (the well-deserved topic of a previous post.)

When stuffing a pumpkin, the hardest part is cleaning out the cavity at the beginning. In fact, I can't help comparing it to butchering a chicken! You have to continually reach into the slimy insides and pull out all of those slick but tough inner fibers to do it. Still, the effort is worth it. While many cooks will tell you canned pumpkin actually has the ideal texture for breads, pies and soups (and I would agree) a fresh pumpkin is the perfect vessel for cooking a savory stuffing and scraping the baked flesh from the hot shell is the best way to appreciate it in all of its culinary glory.


For the last couple of years, we've been the beneficiary of "long pie pumpkins" from Venetucci Farm, an heirloom variety first grown on the East Coast. It struck me this fall that at least two of my gardener-friends hadn't seen them before and observed them with fascination. Is it time for more people to discover this special secret ingredient? How fortunate we are that small farms grow so many wonderful varieties of produce and introduce us to little-known treasures like these! Resembling an oversized zucchini, these oblong pumpkins have an odd shape but are filled with tender meat. 

Most importantly, they are perfect for stuffing! By carving an opening lengthwise across the top, which can be lifted off and put back in place once the cavity is filled, it is easier to get inside and clean them and also to stuff them with wonderful fall food combinations. (See photo above.) For a recent version, I substituted fresh mushrooms for chunks of bread and added some greens: Swiss chard plucked from a backyard garden covered by the season's first snow.  Along with the hot breakfast sausage links from Doug and Kim Wiley's Larga Vista Ranch (my favorite sausage in the world), chunks of cheese, onion, sage and parsley, it was simple, quick to assemble, and... magnificent!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Signposts of the seasons

The years, even the seasons, seem to go by faster and faster. One of the joys of farm life is being constantly surrounded by signposts of the unfolding seasons. The calf shown above has been one of our yardsticks of time's passage. While most of the calves born at Callicrate Cattle Co. are black, the result of Angus and Wagyu breeding, the calf above appeared in the spring of 2010, and his unusual red-and-white hair coat quickly distinguished him. The odd blocks of colors are not something you can easily associate with any particular breed or bloodline typically seen at the ranch.

Last winter, while a light coat of frost was on the ground, I was looking at the weaned calves that had been gathered in the pen near the shed, and I immediately recognized this calf again, set off by his tell-tale pattern. He had left his momma and moved on to a new phase of life.
Today, that calf, along with the rest of his herd mates, is reaching full maturity. Like the rest of us, he and his friends are enjoying these golden fall days while they last. He's clearly well-fed and content, a gentle spirit. And so it is that we get to experience and steward this precious cycle of life. Farming has always been a profession that kept its practitioners grounded and humbled by nature's mystery and wonder.  We're not a predominantly agrarian culture anymore and that's unfortunate. Few things are as satisfying as watching and participating in the continual evolution and renewal of the natural world. 


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Whoopie pies are the new cupcakes

As Mike Callicrate's birthday drew nigh
Ranch Foods Direct celebrated with Mile High Whoopie Pies
by -- who else? -- Mike, the Whoppie Pie Guy!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Scenes from a chuckwagon chowdown

Ranch Foods Direct cooked up free burgers, and visitors lined up to sample a chuckwagon cooking smorgasbord, during the 2011 Pikes Peak or Bust rodeo in Colorado Springs in mid-July. It was the second chuckwagon cookoff in a month; in a repeat performance, the cowboy cooks whipped up hearty meals from donated Callicrate Beef. New this year at the Pikes Peak or Bust event, special ticket-holders had a chance to sample fare by each of the competing wagons. Then they got to mark their ballot for a people's choice winner. That option was a hit! The entrees ranged from standard chicken-fry to smothered steak to spicy beef tips to lightly seasoned shredded beef, all accompanied by beans, potatoes (mashed or roasted), gravies (white or brown) and desserts (bread pudding and cobbler.) Enough to last us all through to next year! 





Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fuel Cafe Hosts Slow Food Denver




Chef Bob Blair and Fuel Cafe, a unique restaurant in a unique setting, hosted the inaugural Slow Food Denver "Community, Art, Food and Education" (C.A.F.E.) dinner last night. Three wonderful food projects in Denver were awarded $1,000 micro-grants from the evening's proceeds; they included a mobile farmer's market that will travel to under-served areas, a horticultural therapy program for at-risk teens, and a community garden emphasizing heirloom vegetables and seed-saving. For the main course, Bob Blair prepared a Callicrate Beef flank steak, cooked to a perfect deep crimson and presented against a beautiful palette of salsa verde and salsa rossa sauces, in green and chili red shades. The art of the food complimented the artwork exhibited throughout Fuel's unusual spaces (its high ceilings, wide halls and garage door openings.) Herbs and tomato plants were flourishing on the rain-washed patio outside.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Celebrated signpost of summer

Celebrated signpost of summer: the first Colorado peaches have arrived at Ranch Foods Direct from the Western slope of the mountains. Peach season signals a special interlude in the ongoing kitchen ritual that extends from spring until a few weeks after the final freeze. But peaches are so good, it's often hard to wait until you can get them to the kitchen, as at least one poet has noted...

"From laden boughs, from hands, 
from sweet fellowship in the bins, 
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all..."

Blind rush and bald pleasure aside, peaches do lend themselves to slightly more complex compilations of food bliss, blessings which include peach salsa, peaches grilled, peach pie or cobbler. The fruit's sensual sweetness stands out in a dish or lends delight to a minimal mix of ingredients. Here's a perfect demonstration: Martha Stewart Living's simple side salad of peaches, basil and red onion marries three of summer's most memorable flavors in an elegant splash of sunny golden colors. Art for the table, rendered effortless.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

July 15: Anniversary party at Trivelli's



Steve and John Trivelli originally planned to keep Trivelli's 35th anniversary low-key. But their mother, Barbara, was having none of it. The timing also happens to coincide with the passing of family patriarch, John Sr., in 2005. "She wanted to make it a memorial," Steve says, adding that when Italians do something, they typically do it big. "At Trivelli's, we like to party; we like to have fun!"

 

The tiny sub-shop - famous locally for its Philly cheese steak-style sandwiches - will have special festivities from 11 to 2 p.m. Friday, July 15, showcasing neighborhood businesses (including Ranch Foods Direct) grilling burgers and hot dogs, and offering hoagie specials throughout the day. John Jr., who plans to leave the shop in August to focus on marketing a line of children's books, will be signing copies of his delightful Wanna Bee series, which playfully introduces kids to various professions.

 

Trivelli's, still holding down the fort at the original 2927 N. Nevada, is a local institution. "We belong in an institution, that's for sure," Steve quips. Back in August 2005, Ranch Foods Direct ran an article on the family business in the newsletter to honor John Sr's passing. Since that time, brother Tony has left the former sub-and-pizza shop at Barnes and Austin Bluffs and moved to Florida. Steve says his mom (whom he calls "4-foot-8-inches of dynamite") is still "ornery as all get out" and, at 74, only just retired from working at the shop three months ago to do more traveling. She's planning to be at the store on the 15th to enjoy the celebration. (Steve and John also have two sisters, Barbie and Lynn, who both live in Mississippi.)

 

Steve admits the restaurant business is tough but says things have never been better at Trivelli's, which is seeing double digit growth in traffic every month. "We've done more advertising and direct mailing," he says. "But what's going on at a deeper level is that people are sick of the $5 sandwiches at Subway. Their meats and cheeses are the bottom of the line, and people are getting their fill of it." A 6-inch hoagie at Trivelli's is $5, bringing the price of the full meal deal to just under $8. The monster 12-incher goes for $10. "The value's there," Steve says. "There's no question about that."

 

One of the big selling points at Trivelli's is, of course, the tender beef from nearby Ranch Foods Direct. "I've got to buy good food; otherwise, I'll be a Subway," Steve says. "Our name is on the building. It means something to me. Everybody knows Trivelli's."

 

Roughly 200 customers a day rotate through the closet-size space, which also features a handy drive-through window, open Monday through Friday 10-8 p.m. and Saturdays 10-5 p.m.


Come by their celebration and show them some love on Friday, July 15!

Read a recent review from the Dine and Dash feature in the CS Indy. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Regs holding back food entrepreneurship

Last month, Ranch Foods Direct received an official USDA grant of inspection authorizing on-farm use of a mobile meat processing unit now parked at Callicrate Cattle Co. Considering that the entire processing of each animal will be carefully observed by a USDA meat inspector —  who isn't busy trying to watch hundreds of animals coming off of a processing line literally every minute as he or she would in a large plant — you might think the authorization process was a breeze. It wasn't. It took nearly a year after the prototype was completed to obtain the certification while planners doggedly wrote and rewrote an extensive HACCP food safety plan. Fortunately, a nonprofit group called the Nebraska Environmental Action Coalition took the lead, committing untold resources and vigorously pushing the mobile processing concept in an attempt to benefit rural economies and increase small scale processing options. Their assistance made it possible for Callicrate Cattle Co. to host one of the first affordable working trailers in the nation.

I thought of all this at lunch this weekend, after someone alerted me to a news story about an unusual taco stand in California that is no longer able to sell a traditional Mexican specialty item, due to a clamp-down by the food police. The main ingredient in the grasshopper tacos —imported Oaxacan grasshoppers — were not "FDA approved." But officials agree there are no FDA approved sources for making this surprisingly popular dish. (Same story on the cicadas that made it into a top-selling batch of ice cream in Missouri.) There's also no indication anyone was ever sickened by either product.

Meanwhile, in Europe, one of the most dangerous e-coli outbreaks in history was attributed to officially certified organic bean sprouts.
 
It's obvious that regulatory hurdles are a threat to food entrepreneurship while falling short of insuring all approved foods are truly safe. A "cottage foods" designation is one form of protest, as is the push for "food sovereignty" occurring in a few communities willing to bet their economic futures on the production of healthy, local foods. Most observers would likely agree that the food police have somehow managed to go too far at the same time they have not gone far enough in the ways that really count.
  

Sunday, May 1, 2011

New offensive strategy: Grow okra


Sweet revenge for all those who believe academic programs are too focused on athletics: A small college in Dallas has transformed its "hallowed field" into hallowed ground of a different type, one capable of helping to feed the surrounding community. The gridiron has given way to a garden between the goalposts. Their new mascot? The "fighting okra," according to a delightful article by Mark Wynne, a food activist, writer and author of Closing the Food Gap. (For more about him, visit www.markwinne.com.

Read his article atfoodfreedom.wordpress.com/2011/04/02/texas-college-converts-football-field-into-organic-farm)

Some of the food the students now grow is served at Cowboys Stadium as well as at the city's restaurants, on campus and through nonprofit hunger programs. Eventually, they want to add an on-site store and a farmers market. These attributes are being used as broader learning tools; the garden also anchors a class in "social entrepreneurship." The college president says the goal isn't to turn students into farmers but into problem-solvers, something a life in agriculture helped forge in our country's bedrock generations.

Apparently schools all over the country have been contacting Paul Quinn's mentor, Yale University, about starting similar programs, so this idea is like a thriving bed of strawberries, sending out loads of vigorous runners.

(Read the Associated Press story at www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ap/tx/7544934.html)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sugar: Not so sweet after all


Science writer Gary Taubes is back, this time with a piece about an insidious but plentiful dietary compound that in all likelihood is far more dangerous than fat and red meat: sugar. His recent article in the New York Times Magazine, "Is Sugar Toxic?" combs through the research to find out how much is too much. Americans, by the way, eat a lot.

His digging shows that if sugar is toxic, it is of the "chronic" versus "acute" form, which means that while humans can tolerate high sugar in a meal or two, it might blind them to the impact it has over thousands of meals (which actually transpires over a period of mere months.) His investigation also shows that diabetes and metabolic syndrome are very likely triggered by fat we can't see: fat that accumulates in the liver as it attempts to metabolize large amounts of sweetened food. There's even a potential link to many common cancers: elevated insulin and related hormones (needed to process sugar-laden diets) appear to feed and accelerate tumor growth.

As he has in the past, Taubes mentions the Inuit, who experienced vibrant health and virtually no diabetes or malignant cancers while eating traditional diets, comprised of copious amounts of fatty meat accompanied by virtually no fruits or vegetables. As their diets became more "Westernized," rates of diabetes and cancers shot up.

Perhaps most telling in his article: the researchers who study the connection between cancer and sugars (here we are talking about the added stuff, not what is naturally occurring in fruits and other foods) have tried to eliminate it from their own diets. They admit that to them sugar is "scary."


Taubes has been doing some remarkable research and following it up with bold, provocative writing. He's responsible for the monumental piece "What if It's All Been  a Big Fat Lie?" which was published by the New York Times back in 2002. It reopened the debate over whether meats and meat fats are really the culprits behind modern diseases. His contention: not likely.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Home kitchen entrepreneurship

“The City is planning to outlaw chicken slaughtering, which is currently not prohibited. The officials writing this law insist that it is currently prohibited and thus the change is not really a change, but when I ask them to tell me where it says this in the law they give me different answers, and never tell me where it states this… So it will be legal to hatch chicks and harbor chickens, but when they are too old to lay eggs or injured say with a broken beak and they cannot eat, you may not kill them. Neither may you slaughter one to eat it… A two-year old chicken is quite fine to eat and our grandparents looked for dinner in their backyards and this was fine.  At a time when hunger issues and food shortage issues are discussed everywhere, we will be required to waste this valuable food resource, usually organically grown. In this way Denver is different from the Soviet Union, where my wife (who grew up there) said no one would think of restricting the rights of the people to produce their own meat from a chicken.” 

— James Bertini, founder of Denver Urban Homesteading

Since they founded Denver Urban Homesteading over a year ago, Jim and Irina Bertini have been fighting the good food fight, which includes their initiative to "free the chickens" in the Denver metro so interested town folk can go back to raising (and slaughtering) their own poultry. They are not alone in their ongoing frustrations with food rules, going so far as to compare the quasi-political patchwork of often petty, ever-changing and unworkable food regulation on the federal, state and sometimes local levels to a food police state. Virtually all of the small farmers and food artisans I know list the daunting labyrinth of food regs as one of their biggest hurdles, though they mostly talk quietly about it among themselves.

Now a fascinating new opposition movement is going public in a big way. Rural communities in New England that have been cultivating local food economies in order to revitalize are pushing "food sovereignty" initiatives. They want federal and state food inspectors and onerous regulations out of their hair. As blogger Kimberly Hartke writes, it's necessary to clear the way for more "home kitchen entrepreneurship."


(For more, read the Sustainable Cities Collective article which begins:

"The town of Sedgwick, Maine, population 1,012 (according to the 2000 census), has become the first town in the United States to pass a Food Sovereignty ordinance.  In doing so, the town declared their right to produce and sell local foods of their choosing, without the oversight of State or federal regulation.  

What does this mean?  In the debate over raw milk, for example, the law opens the gate for consumer and producer to enter a purchasing agreement without interference from state or federal health regulators."

Or Bloomberg Business Week, which summarizes:

"Two small towns have passed ordinances that would make small-scale farmers exempt from state and federal regulations if they sell foods they process directly to consumers.")

It's clear that these communities — which are betting their futures on a revival of local food — want to simplify food business certification and oversight. It's already highly debatable whether it should be illegal for someone to make a coffee cake in their home kitchen and sell it at a community farmers market just down the block. How can we have "cottage producers" or "cottage businesses" without the cottage (by prohibiting its use and insisting instead on something called a commercial kitchen... now doesn't that sound appetizing?)

I recognize the value of professionalism, of elevating a talent to a commercial offering. But I also recognize there will always be risks associated with living and eating and that disease-causing organisms are a naturally occurring part of the environment. The question: are food safety rules realistic, decipherable and flexible enough or are they actually a trade barrier, making it difficult for small local food producers to compete even with imported items that travel halfway around the world from under-developed countries?

Should it put our mind at ease that big food manufacturing plants are occasionally inspected, along with the copious shipments of imported food and food ingredients? Or that these companies have complicated HACCP plans written by high-priced consultants and lawyers and overseen by bureaucrats? The regulations ought to be plain enough to both food producers and consumers that high priced middle men aren't required to spend hours interpreting, and then re-interpreting, them.

On that note, don't forget that tax filing deadline day is fast approaching.



Saturday, March 26, 2011

Small: the next big thing

A life lived with artful intention becomes a work of art. Honoring the creative impulse, however odd or unusual it might seem — and perhaps especially when it seems odd or unusual — often leads to the accidental masterpiece.

So concludes the pre-imminent art writer of our time, Michael Kimmelman, who explores this idea in a thoughtful collection of essays on contemporary, timeless and even eccentric amateur artists. (Among other things, he profiles a dentist and self-made curator who amassed a collection of 75,000 lightbulbs, turning his basement into what he billed the Museum of Incandescent Lighting. As a consequence of obsessively narrowing the lens, even this seemingly mundane object — man-made lighting — becomes a canvas for surprising revelations about human history, discovery, evolution, beauty, mastery and wonder: the curiosities of life.)

Journalist Kimmelman (a sensitive observer who is not to be confused with a mere critic) recently produced another one of his small masterpieces for the New York Times Magazine, this time on the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. The article reveals the character of one marginally famous man working in a creative field, what he stood for, and, by standing true, what his art conveys. Here’s a description of the hauntingly simple chapel-built-for-one pictured above right:

“(Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus chapel, in western Germany) rises from a modest ridge above the farming village of Wachendorf. In winter, a few deer gambol through crunching snow from the surrounding forest, sniff then retreat. The uphill trek from the nearest road, across an empty field, acts like a natural decompression chamber before the first glimpse of the building: an abrupt concrete block with an odd triangular door on one end.

Inside, pitched walls lead to a sort of cave or teepee with a high, teardrop oculus, open to the sky. A handful of people fit comfortably in the space, but ideally it’s made for one or two. Bruder Klaus was a hermit. There are no windows; there is no electricity or running water. Where a central altar might be, there’s a shallow pool of water, formed of rain and snow falling through the oculus. Small bottle-glass portholes add points of light, and undulating walls bear the imprints of 112 spruce trees, chopped down from Zumthor’s clients’ farm, then slowly burned, leaving blackened traces in the thick concrete.

“A small space to be quiet” is how Zumthor described the chapel to me. For the few solitary minutes I spent inside it, it seemed like the most peaceful and secret spot on earth.

The story goes that a family of devout farmers wrote to Zumthor, out of the blue, having hardly a clue of who he was, knowing only that the archbishop in nearby Cologne had hired him to plan a museum, and they asked him to build a field chapel for them — and Zumthor agreed, as long as they could wait a decade. I visited the family at their home. They turned out not to be yokels but prosperous and sophisticated, and they were perfectly aware of who he was. Zumthor, who waived his fee because he found the project intriguing, and who devoted years, as it turned out, to devising the chapel with a construction method that would allow villagers to build it themselves, house-raising-style, now grumbles about how much the chapel ultimately cost him, and how his clients kept trying to cut corners, although he said they ultimately acceded to everything.

Still, the original story has a kernel of truth, because with Zumthor a client is entering, firstly, into a relationship that entails Talmudic discussions and Job-like patience. Ask for an appointment with him, and you may get no response for days or weeks. He employs no publicist, dedicates no aide to media relations. Zumthor has long done what he wants and only what he wants. This has been his virtue and burden, inviting comparison with the late American genius Louis Kahn, another proud perfectionist who built just a few buildings, making the most of a coterie of committed clients to leave behind a handful of masterpieces.”

So many little revelations are packed into this one small slice of story. But most of all, it serves to illuminate the creative impulse that lies at the heart of the artist (dreamer, visionary) versus the mere conveyer of “product.”

In a lengthy, friendly phone conversation with Bob Blair, the chef/owner of Denver’s Fuel CafĂ©, many of the same themes arose: the importance of integrity and authenticity, of honoring quality ingredients (Zumthor, the architect, likes to work with real wood, which he says feels healthier to the body and even has an effect on the skin, but which most architects now consider “too expensive, too complicated and too old-fashioned”) and of deliberately choosing to be small and “off the beaten path” as a way to ultimately make a big impression.

Feel-good marketing aside, there still aren’t a lot of chefs who exhibit Zumthor’s level of missionary zeal. Or Bob Blair’s. As he described to me his quest to track down a non-GMO cooking oil, his level of commitment to sourcing wholesome, sustainably grown products was abundantly clear. It’s exciting to find examples of such artists in our midst: architects who take their cues from nature, history and a sense of place; chefs and farmers who remain first-and-foremost dedicated craftsmen; writers who unearth the complex and subtle truths about what it means to be fully and deeply human. In a time when so much of what surrounds us has been reduced to assembly line commodity, these “accidental masterpieces” stand out, give us pause, light up our imagination.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Get your green on


"What butter and whiskey will not cure, there's no cure for." — Irish proverb

Tender corned beef or a dark rich Guinness beef stew come to mind for St. Patrick's Day. But with a warm, moist breeze blowing and the vernal equinox only days away (that's when the sun crosses the equator and begins concentrating its warmth on the northern hemisphere, marking the official beginning of spring), I can't help thinking about a different kind of green.


Foraging today I discovered some of the first tender spikes of asparagus, to combine with some still-green sage leaves and a saute of red onion, olive oil, a couple of drops of good vinegar, sea salt, ground black pepper and a nice sharp cheddar. How amazingly tender the spears of asparagus as I cut them into pieces!


Another recent pleasure: red swiss chard (U.S. grown although unfortunately not local), chopped and wilted in a saute pan with a similar cast of ingredients except for this time a crumbled blue cheese and fresh chunks of the season's last pomelo grapefruit. Simple pleasures!

If you're looking for more green-is-good ideas, the Wall Street Journal ran a weekend feature paying tribute to the artful possibilities of fresh artichokes (including an appealing roast artichoke, asparagus and potato combination.) Adding to the fun, Food & Wine Magazine devotes an online "page" to multiple recipes for using fresh spring produce, everything from apricots to watercress.

Yes, it's still early. The area gooseberries won't be ripe until July, and they are among the earliest fruits. But the artificial warmth of plastic has helped coax the first baby greens from the ground on area farms, and there will be more, much more, to follow.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Life is a trip: Following the sheep

The latest issue of Spirituality and Health magazine includes a beautiful article on something called “transhumance,” a term I had never heard despite growing up on a farm and earning a degree in agriculture. It’s apparently “the seasonal movement of livestock from lowlands, where they’re fed in the winter, to high mountain areas, where they graze in the summer.” To get a taste of this tradition, travel writer Judith Fein, accompanied by a small band of curious city dwellers, tags along as Portuguese shepherds finish moving their flocks. Along the way she notices the curving horns, dark faces and other unique characteristics of the individual sheep, the ancient stone road beneath them constructed by “Roman hands” and a fig tree sagging under the weight of ripe fruit too luscious to ignore. Once they arrive in town, musicians are playing their accordions and guitars, the homes are brightly decorated and the locals are offering an array of goods and services. She discovers an elderly basket-weaver, one of the last living practitioners of his craft, who reminisces about the colorful local market he still remembers from his childhood.

She finds the people around her deeply moved by the experience of participating in this ancient pastoral tradition. “The main by-product of transhumance is fresh, natural dairy products from cows, goats and sheep, but equally significant is the nature-based, communal way of life that is now teetering on the edge of extinction,” she writes. She quotes another woman nearby as saying: “I loathe the idea of going back to the modern world, with all the noise, chaos and buzz of electronics.”

Here and around the world, the agrarian culture is fading away in the name of progress, taking with it a way of life uniquely suited to feeding the human spirit. At the Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture last month, futurist and keynote speaker Lowell Catlett cited fascinating research from the Institute of HeartMath that showed 90 percent of the time when women and horses are around each other, their cardiac rhythms synchronize, evidence of the mysterious depth of the animal-plant-people connection that we are only just beginning to fathom. (Interestingly, heart entrainment only happens 10 percent of the time between horses and men.) Despite a widening disconnect between field and table, this time of year seems to tie everyone inevitably back to a nature-based life, with the early fruit trees blooming, new calves appearing in pastures, the first vegetables sprouting in gardens, the farmers busily preparing to supply another season of abundant summer markets! And it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that we humans have the parasympathetic powers to tap into the vitality of all those flowering bulbs bursting up through the earth or the first sweet blossoms popping out of their buds.

Award winning writer Fein reminds us to open ourselves to the subtle magic surrounding us — whether we are traveling around the globe or just around the corner — and to live with the awareness of a pilgrim seeking to be transformed rather than a tourist looking for momentary amusements. She’s collected her 14 most memorable travel experiences into a book, Life Is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel, assuredly a fascinating and uplifting read, inspiration for the journey.

Friday, March 4, 2011

On farming, healing and quality of life


At the recent Governor's Forum on Colorado Agriculture, keynoter and New Mexico State University agricultural economist Lowell Catlett (shown at right) sought to broaden the definition of agriculture beyond the production of commodities like corn and wheat by pointing to its vast potential contributions to human health and well-being. One of the pioneering programs he mentioned involves putting returning soldiers afflicted with PTSD to work on NMSU's extension research farms. Having a regimented schedule of what his father's generation simply called "chores," plus working around plants and animals, is proving to be one of the most successful treatments available for suffering soldiers, he said.

It reminded me of a recent program I'd heard on American Public Media's The Story, called "Warrior to Farmer." New Mexico native Matthew McCue served in Iraq, but while there he was struck by the important  role of farmers' market in that culture and eventually came to the conclusion that he could do "more good with a shovel" than a gun. He's now engaged in sustainable agriculture. He wants to return to Iraq someday, this time as a farmer rather than a soldier.


And this week's New York Times Wednesday food section chronicles a program in New Jersey that trains people with disabilities for jobs in the hydroponic greenhouse business, supplying stores and restaurants with fresh greens and herbs. The program was inspired by the fact that even someone born with Down syndrome can get blearily bored doing repetitive tasks all day. Through the Arthur & Friends program, which hopes to replicate around the country, trainees nurture life, working with their hands and engaging a wide range of skills, as they go about their day in the midst of a "green oasis."

Not so many generations ago, most kids grew up in a rural setting and many of them had the option of returning home to a family farm or a small town for their livelihood. In the years since, a huge out-migration has occurred, leading to concentrated cities like Denver where long commutes are the norm. Many farm kids who would like to stay and work in agriculture no longer consider it an option if they want to eventually put kids of their own through college or live without the financial cloud of huge operating debts constantly over their heads. Few are willing to live the austere life my own parents did. And as a new generation struggles to get a toehold in today's tough economy, having steady means, savings and assets is becoming more important than ever within families who hope to provide meaningful opportunities for each other.

That said, it seems ironic that we've removed so many people from the farm, only to bring them back again for healing when modern life proves overwhelming and unsatisfying. Or that we wait until someone is suffering from a psychological condition of some kind before giving them the option to experience a way of life that is inherently healthy and rewarding. Our society has been denigrating and devaluing food and fiber production for decades, to where it is hardly viable as a way of life without some additional financial support brought in from an outside funding source.

Catlett believes his generation, the Baby Boomers, will force our world to change. They have the wealth and the numbers to do it. He predicts they will want to return to the old model of being born and dying within the comfort of home (rather than in a hospital.) They will want their pets with them when they go into a care facility, and horses grazing on a green slope outside their window. They will want artisan cheeses and bio-dynamic wines served with their dinner. And as a consequence of these desires, the importance of agriculture will experience a renewal, creating unforeseen opportunities to work in the field. He's considered a "futurist" and that's his vision of where things are headed. He calls it (for lack of a better term) a "plants-animals-and-people thing." They all just seem to go together and form a whole that's more than the sum of their parts. It's old wisdom, of course, being rediscovered in our time.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Relish these words: Adventures in food

In the increasingly popular food nonfiction genre, William Alexander offers up compulsively readable stories. Never preachy, he poses as an unassuming middle class East Coast professional whose wit and self-deprecating humor, curiosity and willingness to learn lead him into intricate adventures growing his own apples and tomatoes, and making his own peasant bread in his home kitchen.

 

In his latest, 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust, he chronicles his education as he makes one loaf a week for a year in hopes of achieving bread perfection. Along the way, he dispenses crumbs of fascinating cultural and scientific trivia. For example, the reader learns early on that Sunni militants in Baghdad drove the Shiites out of targeted neighborhoods by killing the bakers: “To shut down a well-known bakery in a neighborhood, that means you paralyze life there,” one man explained. After months of research and experimentation, Alexander ends up in an ancient French monastery, rigging a sourdough variation that will fit into the regimented schedule of monks who still pray seven times a day, as they have since the 600s. In the pages between, he consults experts like Peter Reinhart and a grain scientist at Bay States Milling for bread-making insight, and goes through the laborious process of raising, threshing and stone-grinding his own wheat.


His first book,
The $64 Tomato — subtitled “How one man nearly lost his sanity, spent a fortune, and endured an existential crisis in the quest for the perfect garden” — takes its title from an accounting toward the end of the summer in which he attempts to put a dollar figure to each of his beautiful ripe late summer Brandywine tomatoes. As he meticulously adds them all up, the figures startle him. He easily computes the privilege of growing each palm-sized gem at $64.

 

“Food is cheap,” Alexander writes, as he muses on his self-imposed accounting exercise. “I actually grew a fair amount of food; it just wasn't worth much. For example, my local green market is selling a ten-pound bag of white potatoes for $1.50 - just 15¢ a pound. A person could probably eat well from that buck-fifty bag for several days. (For this exercise I valued my Yukon Gold and fingerling potatoes at $1.50 per pound.) Every time I'm done picking sugar snap peas or rise from my stoop, aching, from picking green beans, I marvel that I can buy this stuff in the green market for a dollar a pound. How can anyone possibly grow green beans for a dollar a pound? I can't even pick them for a dollar a pound, it takes so long. It's a miracle that any farmer stays in business, but God bless them.”

 

His good-humored calculations raise a serious point, of course, one which confronts agriculturalists everyday: the difference between what it costs to grow food compared to how it’s priced at the store, in many cases far below a realistic cost for the vagaries of production. For a home gardener (in this case, one who plans to keep his day job at the nearby research institute) it isn’t an issue, but just the number alone exposes a startling gap that is not easily or often explained well, even while we note the obvious: rural towns in decline and family farm business structures that have been forced to change, in some cases, dramatically, to achieve the scale and efficiency to survive economically. This is all happening at the same time as an increasing number of shoppers seem to be demanding a more romantic, sensual, traditional style of food production.

 

Alexander seems to have inadvertently put his finger on a modern dilemma (Yes, you can have a lovingly raised, lavishly indulged tomato, but it will cost you $64 a pop.) By documenting his own experiences, he reveals the timeless — and time-consuming — nature of the arts of food and agriculture, which are impossible to mass produce without compromising something. Read him to understand why even relatively pricey food is often still a bargain, and find yourself smiling (or chuckling) as you do.