Thursday, June 28, 2007

Salad days: CSA weeks 3 and 4

Summer is here.

I just pulled some pie dough that I mixed up yesterday from the fridge, and am getting this post started in the time it takes to soften enough to roll into the crusts for a couple of cherry pies. I did my annual shift on Tuesday at our CSA pickup site and came home with 2 quarts of cherries, about 10 lbs. of apples, and two bunches of flowers

(one of which I gave to a complete stranger on the train on the way home, an act that while not quite as selfless as it may seem--I did deliberately sign up for the final shift of the evening, after all, knowing that in doing so I'd boost my take--was really fun. God bless you too, honey. And while I'm confessing, I ought to mention that th'usband pitted all the cherries for me, and in return I'm heating up the house on him)

over and above our weekly share.

A few days before that, on Saturday, th'usband and I drove out to Water Mill at the very tip of Long Island (just barely in our 100 mile foodshed radius if you want to know the truth) to take advantage of the annual invitation to pick strawberries and visit the farm that supplies our CSA.

Now there's a happy story. Green Thumb farm has been in the Halsey family for over 300 years. The last of its 95 acres was certified organic about 20 years ago, though as Bill Halsey pointed out, all his generation did was to convert the farm back to the kinds of practices that had been used through the middle of the 20th century.

(For a great story connecting the dots between modern agricultural production, World War II, and Muscle Shoals, read this article by Michael Pollan, originally published in Smithsonian Magazine. When you feel sufficiently disgusted, click here to sign a petition to request that Farm Bill subsidies be extended to organic farmers. The goal is 30,000 signatures by July 15th, and as of this writing, they're about halfway there.)

In the mid-70s, around the time that Bill, his two sisters and one brother were in college and trying to figure out if they wanted to spend another generation on the farm, their father had an accident involving pesticides. He wound up in the hospital, and though he almost died then, thirty years later, he's still working the farm with his kids, and lately, his grandkids. In addition to a farm stand adjacent to their land, a favorite with personal chefs for the Hamptons crowd, the Halseys produce enough organic fruits and vegetables to feed 450 families participating in 7 CSAs.

Importantly, they also sustain themselves. In the 60s, like all of their farming neighbors, the Halseys grew nothing but potatoes, and were finding it harder and harder to get by. Before the organic conversion even began, they found that they could increase their revenues by planting tomatoes, corn, peppers, and eggplants to sell at the farm stand. Today there are about 400 different varieties of maybe 150 different types of crops. (We walked through just one patch of lettuce with Bill Halsey, who encouraged us to pick whatever looked tasty--and by the time we stopped with heads of iceberg, romaine, salad bowl, and a red-leafed something, it was only because we knew that there are physical limits to how much salad a person can eat.)

With limited yields, prices stay higher and the family is protected from catastrophic crop failure; though this wasn't the best year for strawberries, there's always the

bagesummersquashbasilpumpkinsbeetscollardgreensrosemary (etc)

to look forward to. It's a far cry and a far better life from that of farmers stuck growing nothing but corn and soybeans for the subsidy payments while moonlighting as truckers or what have you to get by. And it's just one more reason that we're enjoying what's on our plates this summer.

Caesar dressing
I keep meaning to pick up a tin of anchovies, but even without them, there's nothing like the rich, lemony decadence of homemade caesar. Per person, in a large bowl you'll later use to toss the lettuce, whisk together:
  • 1 egg yolk
  • a generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice
  • an equal amount of cider vinegar (balsamic is just fine too)
  • a dash of Worcestershire sauce
  • a pinch of salt (probably not necessary if you've got the anchovies)
  • minced garlic if you want it, or mix some with olive oil, coat cubes of stale bread, and bake them to make croutons
  • Grate in some fresh Parmesan cheese, and sprinkle some more with a good bit of pepper over the salad

Thursday, June 21, 2007

nose to toes preparation

Read this. These are the kinds of lives that simultaneously inspire my thinking about food and creativity and make anything that I've imagined so far seem small.

local vs. organics, round two

A recent post about organic and/or local produce drew this comment about another certification option:
...Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), a certification program created in 2002 specifically for farmers who grow organically and sell locally but may not have the time and/or money to pursue USDA Organic certification. Certified Naturally Grown is designed to supplement the agri-business focused National Organic Program by recognizing small, local, organically committed farmers for their sustainable practices and giving customers assurance that CNG farmers adhere to specific, publicly-documented standards.
Certification through our program requires an application process, an annual inspection, and publication on our website of documents signed by the farmers and their inspectors. Certified Naturally Grown bases its standards on the National Organic Program, but improves on these standards where necessary (particularly with respect to livestock living conditions and access to pasture).
Currently almost 500 farms in 48 states are Certified Naturally Grown. CNG is a private, independent, non-profit grassroots effort that runs primarily on free-will donations from farmers and supporters, it's nationally recognized and endorsed (, and it is a legitimate alternative to the "non-local certified organic vs. local non-certified” conundrum.
Meanwhile, the May/June issue of Eating Well features an interesting article comparing and contrasting organic and conventional agriculture, particularly with regard to the impact of pesticides on food safety. Cited are a number of other organic certification alternatives, including
...Food Alliance, an Oregon-based group that has created its own alternative certification program for farmers committed to sustainable agricultural practices.
Part of the impetus for creating local certification bodies is a practical one; certain heirloom strains of apples and tomatoes, the article points out, are extremely susceptible to pests that require management practices off limits to organic farmers. Other farmers, like the ranchers behind Food Alliance, reject the kinds of compromises that overly strict organic regulations can occasion:
Doc Hatfield, a veterinarian by training, [explains], “We’ve got 14,000 acres of our own, but our cattle also range over land maintained by the Bureau of Land Management, and the BLM sometimes uses pesticides to clear weeds away from the roadside.” For that reason, his cattle can’t qualify as organic. But the Hatfields have come to believe that letting the animals roam over as much land as possible is more important to their health—and contentment—than restricting them to organic acreage.
Still others ask the kinds of questions raised by environmental journalist Michael Pollan in Omnivore's Dilemma and elsewhere about what organic labels mean when they are applied on a large, commercial scale. From the EW article again:
...a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group called the Cornucopia Institute reported in April that at least some organic milk sold by a major nationwide brand comes from industrial-style dairy farms with thousands of cows who are kept confined rather than being allowed to graze. Wal-Mart, meanwhile, recently announced that it will double its organic produce offerings—sparking new worries that the original notion of organic farming as small and local has been lost to big business.
I'm worried about all these certification tiers. I think that all or most--even the federal organic guidelines--are designed with the best of intentions, and provide important information to consumers in the absence of direct contact with producers. The danger, though, is that faced with a dozen different virtuous-sounding labels, a lot of people are going to get confused, and then cynical.

My guess is that the organic standard will soon really only be meaningful at the national level (when choosing between oranges, for instance, all of which are raised far outside of my foodshed), and as a gauge of the relative nutritional value (as in EW's focus on pesticide residues) of items within a category. For all the things that I eat that can be produced closer to home, meaningful choices are going to require a correspondingly closer look at the standards applied. Really, though, I'm back to the same realization that I made a few weeks back when trying to figure out what my food goal for the summer should be: it's only once I've completely adopted a locavore lifestyle that I need to worry too much about the relative merits of this apple vs. that one. And that's still a long way off.

Friday, June 15, 2007

brew news

On Thursday I kegged the batch of Belgian Witbier that I made the week before. Like all 'white' beers it owes its light color and refreshing taste to the partial substitution of wheat for barley. I also brewed up a batch of Porter, based on a standard English Sweet Porter kit but with chocolate malt (the grain, not the ice cream drink) added. It smelled great as it was all going into the pot, and when I took it off of the boil, I noticed an extra creaminess owing to the rolled oats in that recipe. There was a bit of a sanitation breakdown towards the end when I was trying to strain it all into the fermenter--first the doorbell was ringing ('Do you want an exterminator, Mami?') and the dog was barking and then the phone was ringing (twice) and both the dog and the cat were running crazed circles around the kitchen past the open lid of the fermenter--but hopefully I'll get away with it. If you're nervous about it and you stop by, you can have a nice summery glass of the Wit instead.

Meanwhile, th'usband has ordered me some more brewing gear for my birthday, namely a fourth keg and a second fermenter. This new fermenter is to be a glass carboy, which is purportedly better when you can't keg right away because the glass protects the beer from oxidation. Having a second will also allow me to space batches closer together and to clarify them with a two-stage fermentation process.

Many beers with a hoppy aroma get it from an addition of hops to the secondary fermentation stage, 4-7 days prior to bottling or kegging day. What I'm wondering is how that works given the narrow neck of a glass carboy. I guess I can't use a muslin bag with plug hops or it will expand like a sponge in there and I'll never get it out. If anyone out there is a brewer, I'm asking what may seem obvious to you: what do I do? Just throw the hops in there loose so I can rinse them out later? Am I missing something?

Fun ag/local econ. facts from July Harper's Index

  • Amount that a Colorado state prisoner is paid to work a day as a field hand at a local farm: $0.60
  • Amount the prisons are paid by farmers for each inmate's daily work: $77.20
  • Amount the USDA's Rural Development program has given in aid to distressed rural areas since 2001: $8,600,000,000
  • Amount the program has given to metropolitan areas, retirement communities, and resorts: $39,100,000,000
  • Percentage of every dollar spent at a locally owned Chicago store that is retained or recirculated in the city: 68
  • Percentage of every dollar spent at a chain store in Chicago that is: 43
  • Portion of the worldwide revenue from food retailing accounted for by ten corporations: 1/4

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What's Fresh Now: CSA week 2

Here's a picture of this week's harvest, avec chat. I figured that if I let her momentarily indulge her taste for green leafies, she might leave my basil plant alone for awhile. Here's the list, L to R:
  • romaine lettuce
  • mizuna (a Japanese stir-fry green)
  • leaf lettuce
  • strawberries
  • rhubarb
  • more curly cress
Last night's dinner already made use of the mizuna and rhubarb (which I cooked with duck breasts, to mediocre & mushy effect; if there's any more rhubarb next week, I'm going with this instead) and the strawberries, for strawberry shortcake. I also neglected to mention the other day that I made a soup out of last week's sunchokes.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

the organic/local food conundrum

I take a hobbyist's approach to many of my greatest passions--something I ought to discuss with a skilled therapist, perhaps--but lately, I have no trouble finding confirmation of their relevance in the daily news cycle.

While the mainstream media often discusses local and organic foods as if the two were in competition with each other--or suggests that the choice to buy one's food from anything but a supermarket stocked with the products of conventional agriculture is most basically a romantic one, as Time magazine does here--there may be even more reason for consumers to question the significance of their choices if the USDA continues to relax organic standards. I share grocery industry analyst Kevin Coupe's rejection of such actions, even in the face of the complications he acknowledges, like the shortage of organic feed crops relative to rising demand for organic dairy products. If giants like Anheuser-Busch want access to the lucrative organic market, they should be the ones funding the full conversion of their suppliers to legitimate, 100% organic farming practices. Smaller producers are doing it.

And, if we apply the analogy a little more personally, if the wealthier citizens of the wealthiest nation on earth want access to quality food, we have to be willing to put our dollars into the farmers and systems that can deliver it to us. And we have to use our brains to navigate the choices we may encounter along the way.

I had an interesting conversation about this the other day with my brother-in-law, a Denver area chef. His wife's family owns and operates a crop and dairy farm in southern Missouri. While still not convinced it is worth it for him to go for organic certification, B's father-in-law routinely pastures his dairy herd and is committed to many of organic farming's basic aims. It might make more sense both from an environmental and an economic perspective for consumers in the Ozarks to buy their milk from this or a similar local family farm than from a big organic producer like Stonyfield, which is located in New England.

An earlier draft of this post ended with a chirpy story intended to show how the organic or local question is often a false dichotomy. I wrote about laying in a small supply of ground beef for my party on Saturday from the meat guy who sells his wares at our CSA pickup each week, and who I believed was both a local and organic farmer. Make no mistake; the beef was good. One guest came up and asked me what we'd done, because that was about the best burger he'd ever eaten. That inspired th'usband to make a funny about my "college-educated cow meat," which I've gone on to repeat, smugly, several times.

But a conversation yesterday with the man also cited by the NYTimes for his incomparably delicious all-natural hot dogs revealed a stance very similar to that of my sister-in-law's dad in Missouri. Dines Farm is a 100% natural operation: that is, the cows (and lamb, pigs, chickens, ducks, and turkeys) are pasture raised on 120 acres without antibiotics or growth hormones, and their grass-fed meat is leaner and more complex in flavor than the cloyingly buttery corn-fed feedlot stuff. It is also fresh, very fresh: they have a processing plant on site, and do most of the cutting for the week on Tuesdays. But Dines is not an organic farm. "No need," said Mr. Dines. "I've got a top-quality product. I've been doing this for 20 years. But with 15 new plants going up to produce biofuels, the price of feed is already going through the roof, let alone certified organic feed. It would mean a lot of paperwork and a lot of expense, and it wouldn't make the meat any better."

Honestly, I was a little bummed to hear this. Like the well-trained, prestige-driven consumer that I am, I am drawn to the word "organic" on a label as to a favorite brand. But I'm going to use my brain here, as I exhorted everyone else to do just a couple of paragraphs back, and stick with Dines Farm meats. I'm persuaded of its quality and value, including its value for the community I live in and the reduction of our local dependence on fossil fuels. I do find that my confidence in the superiority of organic agriculture has clouded over a bit in the last couple of days, however, and for the first time I'm seeing the organic label as something of a gimmick.

If it is, then at least it's a gimmick I am happy to see succeed on a national scale. By all means, let big processed foods concerns pay for the right to stamp the word "organic" on their cheese doodles and salsa verde. Let Anheuser-Busch pour money into Yakima Valley to support the organic conversion of hops farms, and let Frank Purdue create a huge & compelling demand for organic corn. My freshly-minted feeling, though, is that until changes of this magnitude occur (and they can and should and will occur rather quickly, I do expect) to our systems of agricultural production, it is best for me to make a distinction between local and organic, and to choose local in every possible instance.


My Booze & Yarn attendance has been pretty piss-poor lately, but I want to save this Knitty article with its list of DIY fixit tutorials for future reference. In the meantime, author David Demchuk's About-the-Author-cum-confessional cracked me up:

David has been making mistakes in his knitting for more than 20 years. He has made frightful design and colour choices, has knit yurts instead of sweaters when he hasn't swatched for gauge, has confused his numbers and knit two sizes at the same time for the back of a cardigan, has grafted thumbs inside out onto gloves, has seamed the outside of a hat by mistake, and once came very close to making a sock with a toe at each end. He is not too proud to ask for your pity.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

on the wagon, sort of

We've run out of beer.

I've got a birthday coming up, so we invited some friends over for a party last night. It is a lot of fun to be able to hand each guest a pint glass at the door and let them have at it, but for the first time in 3 months and 6 kegs, the bar did demand some maintenance. Brew and learn, I guess.

It began on Wednesday when I discovered that the CO2 tank was pretty much empty. The next day, I started googling "compressed gas" "CO2 tank refills" and "beverage service." Nothing--or at least nothing relevant.

Somehow I did find a link to a welding supply company out on Long Island with no website but a soothing man in their employ who told me that I could exchange my spent tank for a full one at a location near me. That sounded easy enough, but it was already pretty much closing time and my errand would have to wait until the next day. In the meantime, I decided to create a mountain out of that proverbial molehill by calling up Brooklyn Brewery and asking someone there where they got CO2. A few phone calls later, I'd learned (here's a big surprise) that my CO2 tank was too small for big commercial suppliers to be bothered with, and besides, it had gone out of test the month before. The particular gentleman who helped me figure that out went on to tell me about incidents of tanks that exploded after faulty servicing from a competitor he refused to recommend--or name. I worked myself into a pretty big panic about it all, but in the end, just like the soothing man said, all I had to do was take it to a welding supply place and swap it for a new one. I must admit, however, that I didn't go to soothing man's shop, but chose one in my favorite Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook instead. Note to other desperate home brewers: if "welding supplies" doesn't do it, try googling "industrial gases."

All fine and dandy. We got the new tank installed but laid off the beer for a few days, both to save the half (Red Hook ESB clone) and nearly full (Sierra Celebration Ale clone) kegs for the party, and to gain some control of our drinking habits. In the meantime, I set about brewing a batch of Belgian style wheat beer with some additional Curacao orange peel thrown in for good measure. (I was going for heightened citrusy tang, but I just read that I might have been better off with an extra ounce of coriander. Whoops.)

Fast forward to the party, when the flow of ESB thinned to barely a trickle. BrewUnc#3 had just walked in the door, so I put him to work diagnosing the problem, which I assumed to be with the CO2 boost. Not so, said me Unc. It seems the kegerator cabinet could use some more weatherstripping, and a mighty block of ice had built up around the beer lines; somewhere in the left set of hoses, something froze (that will teach us to leave beer untouched for more than a couple of days!) so that we had to settle for drawing from just one tank at a time, using the hoses on the right side only.

We blew through the first keg midway through the evening, but made it to the end of the party on the second. Before calling it a night, I unplugged the whole business and put a bath towel in front of the door to catch the meltwater. This was soaked by morning, when I went to check how much beer was left and came up with a sputtering glass of head. Empty!

All well and good. If the CO2 lines had any moisture in them, they now will have a couple of weeks to dry out. I've also rinsed out the kegs and filled the tap hoses with iodophur sanitizing solution. Before we hook up the next batch, I'll make sure to tack some more weatherstripping around the door frame. And a few weeks on the wagon never hurt anyone...though if I'm not mistaken, there's a six-pack or two in the fridge left by some thoughtful guest. Salud!

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

What's fresh now: CSA week 1

For those of you not into brewing, knitting, or Dutch novels about Mexico, I bring you a new feature: what's fresh now.

That's right, our first CSA delivery for the year was yesterday. Farmer Bill makes the drive from Water Mill to the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn 26 times a year, each Tuesday from June to December. This is our second year of participation. Last year, I attempted to keep a personal record of what we got each week and what we did with it; but without anyone reading or reacting to this journal--or more importantly, getting on my case when I let yet another batch of mystery Asian greens go dank and unexplored--I got sloppy.

To me, the single best part of belonging to a CSA is the really concrete awareness it brings about what's in season. We still have to supplement our weekly take with trips to the grocery store (though this year I've also made a personal pledge to buy local, pasture-raised meat each week from the Dines Farm guy who parks his cooler at the CSA pickup point) but I find myself less tempted to buy tomatoes when we should be eating asparagus, or mangoes when it's strawberry season. It's a start.

And then the weather report takes on a whole new level of interest. (I'm told it's not really normal for someone not yet in her 80s, but I love the weather page and have been known to make mix tapes of songs that sing to this passion, from 'The Only Living Boy in New York' to 'Weather with You.') Our April monsoon, for instance, has had me a little stressed about the strawberries, which were the juicy red-to-the-core highlights of the first deliveries last year. Word from the farm says they're still on their way, though, so that's exciting. In the meantime, look at the gorgeous haul we started with this year:
  • lettuce (two kinds)
  • herbs (curly cress & oregano)
  • jerusalem artichokes (in bowl; also known as sunchokes & are completely unrelated to artichokes or the middle east)
  • radishes (ever eat them with really salty butter & a baguette? yum.)
  • black beans (which I shelled, to th'usband's great annoyance, as we watched a movie)
  • asparagus

We had a salad last night with some of the lettuce, radishes, herbs, and sunchokes, dressed only with lemon juice (to help the sunchokes keep their color) and a little olive oil. Th'usband also put some of the oregano into the lasagna he was making. I'm going to have to dry a bunch of that, because there's no way we can go through that much in a week. Further uses to come.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Revolt of Guadalajara, Chapter 1 part 2

Between two oceans, but far from both, on a stony, infertile plain, where irregular mesas alternate with surly, grey-green fields, where the rare shabby village and low trees stick out and hordes of shrubs lie silent and bald on the sandy banks of the riverbed that almost always streams with silt, lies Guadalajara, the capital of the state of Jalisco, one of the poorest and most backward in all of Mexico. [note to reader: yes, these are long-winded and occasionally even run-on sentences. I’m trying to preserve what I understand to be the intentional unwieldiness of the original, at least for now.] It was founded by one of the followers of Hernando Cortes, who went almost without mention in the history of the conquest and who was apportioned the least-promising spoils.

A long road ran from the South, where the government had its seat, to the distant bent-over barrier island in the North, now called Baja California. Guadalajara was originally nothing more than a depot for goods and food for passing expeditions. Later a few salt flats were exploited, a tin mine was discovered, a soap-works set up, and something of a harvest was eked out from the meager fields in the area. But the original residents, the Indians, didn’t get ahead as a result of any of this; instead, the conquerors kept everything for themselves and had the Indians work for them. They offered no resistance. The strongest took to the hills, from which perch they threatened the plains dwellers for a long time. The ones who stayed behind were gradually weakened. In the exchange of syphilis for tuberculosis, they fared badly. The forced labor in the salt flats, the soap works, the tin mines, and the glass blowers that were later established, was deadly to them. The abuse of strong drink replaced the rare but enormously therapeutic release provided by the old blood sacrifice festivals. The unruly were exiled, the meek retained.

Only in one of the outlying towns did one strain hold themselves pure and apart, supporting themselves with crude basketweaving that they themselves carried once every two months to the market in Aguascalientes, so as not to have any trade with Guadalajara.

Once there had also been an insurrection in and around Guadalajara: when wars of independence were waged throughout South America, republics sprang up like mushrooms out of the ground, merging and dividing, and often disappearing again after a brief existence; it had only lasted there for a very short time. After that no one gave any more thought to revolts. Languishing, sickly and in filth and poverty they lived on.

There were still remnants of the old sacrifices. Sometimes a child would go missing. The law didn’t trouble itself over it as long as it didn’t happen too often, even if the child later turned up mutilated or dead. In a place ringed by walls, not far from the city, the old misshapen idols still stood, weathered and crumbling, and another still more or less intact on an offshoot of the mountain chain. There was a vague legend that one day the sun wouldn’t go down and the gods would enter the city and devour the white people, but when and how would they tell the whites from the Indians? Many didn’t even know themselves, calling themselves white if in doubt, though under those circumstances would try to pass for Indians.

The gods were still brought offerings in secret, really so few that they must long since have grown displeased. The Christian gods made such large demands: no children, truth be told (except for those who were used for work in the monasteries), but money, lots of money, more than they could ever hope to raise. They always were coming up short, their products were always worth less than they expected when brought to market and bought by contemptuous middlemen.

Monday, June 4, 2007

to groove is to purchase

It's funny how close the correlation is between getting into a hobby and getting into debt. When I first started brewing just a few months back, I couldn't imagine how anyone could object to a little cloudiness or other tell-tale signs of homemade beer. Now I'm pretty much certain that I need to upgrade to a two-stage fermentation system, both to improve the clarity of the final product by siphoning the beer off of the trub, and to tighten the spacing between batches. Of course, if I'm going to have two different brews fermenting at the same time, I'm going to need a fourth keg for a total of two in reserve. And once I've got that in the house, I know I'll be even more tempted to forgo the shortcut of using dried malt extract and want to make my beer with actual grains. These will have to be mashed first--soaked and agitated in a hot bath to kick start the conversion of starches to sugar--then sparged (don't think I fail to appreciate the geeky jargon involved here). Fortunately there's a system available for these additional steps, albeit for a pretty penny, and th'usband is willing to give up some space in his toy closet to accommodate it. But what's going to happen when I decide I need a goat or some cattle to eat & compost the spent grain for me?