Monday, May 26, 2008

May Is Still Tough

I think I'd better see about extended season gardening in our yard. The pickings at the farmer's markets around here are pretty slim in May. Mostly popcorn, pasta, bread, snocones, bedding plants, and dog biscuits. Bless Honeyacre for showing up with their beautiful hothouse tomatoes, cucumbers, and sweet peppers. For hothouse tomatoes, they are remarkably tasty, and hold their own in salads and as sliced fresh tomatoes. Yum!

One other booth was selling produce last week, at some pretty strange prices: a tiny bunch of miniature radishes for $3.00; no thanks. I love radishes, but not that much. We'll just wait.
Maybe it's time for me to struggle out to the weed patch and plant a few radish seeds. Radishes make a quick crop; one that's especially fun for kids, since they can see results so quickly.

True story I once heard; little kid planting in the garden for the first time, put some radish seeds carefully into the ground. A couple of days later, after the boy was in bed, his grandfather transplanted some full grown radishes into the row. In the morning, the kid's eyes got as big as saucers! Wow, grandpa, they already grew!

It takes a little longer than that for us adults, but radishes are still quick and easy.

Our local food buying coop missed out on the lettuce we had ordered: the word was "aphids". Osage Gardens, the supplier of the wonderful butter lettuce we've been enjoying, had an aphid infestation that wiped out all of one crop. Since they're organic, they can't bring in the big guns and kill every bug in sight. We hear the next crop is coming on, and hope to get our hands on it in a few weeks. We have been enjoying the Colorado spinach.

As the price of petroleum goes up and up, the price of everything we buy goes up. The more transportation cost embedded in the production of a food item, the higher the price must go. There is no alternative, except to foster local producers, and to grow our own. How can we foster local producers?

  • Buy a membership in a local CSA, but buy it early; most are sold out by April

  • Dig up your grass and plant food; the "100-foot diet". Hopefully you haven't been dousing the grass with weed-n-feed and Roundup.

  • Encourage more local produce farmers..... but how?

Some of the problems local produce farmers face, both the hothouse and the field farmers: cold winters, hail, tornadoes, cost of irrigation water, cost of diesel to run the pumps to irrigate and to run the tractors, and most of all, unbelievably high costs for farmland near cities and towns. We're talking $20,000 to $40,000 an acre for some of this land. The only crop that can profitably be grown on land that expensive is shopping malls and houses.

Aside: Tell me, do we really NEED more retail space near Loveland and Fort Collins? Where is the money coming from to buy goods in all those stores? Where are the new good-paying jobs to support all that spending?

Back to the problems of local farmers--The list goes on: diseases caused by monocropping spreading into their fields. USDA subsidies for corn, wheat, and soy, most of which go to large corporations, but no help for produce farmers. Infection of non-GMO crops by pollen from neighboring GMO fields, and subsequent lawsuits from GMO producers for so-called "theft" of genetic material the farmer didn't want in the first place.

More: Pollinator decline, especially honeybees, due to diseases and pests of many kinds, and management which is often focused far more on profit than on honeybee health. (To read more about the problems of the honeybees, and some solutions, see Gunther Hauk's website: Spikenard Farm.)

And More: Water is being sold out from under farmland across the West to support municipal growth. Once the water is gone, the farmland reverts to prairie permanently, if not desert. So, tell me, do we need more suburban sprawl around here, or do we need food?

The campaign--one might almost call it a crusade--begun in the 1950s by Sec. of Agriculture Earl Butz to dismantle the small family farms in favor of mega-agri-bizness is in its final stages, and we are all the poorer for it (well, almost all; a few in this country have profited enormously from this change). What can we do to turn this around? How can we start, as communities, as individuals, to value local farming and farmers, and protect them. How can we encourage young people who desperately want to farm, but are unable to afford the "development" cost of land? How can we change our community's priorities?

I don't have the answers. These are not rhetorical questions, they are real questions, and the answers we find as individuals and as communities will determine what kind of food we have for our families now and in the future.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Two posts well worth the read

Sharon Astyk, one of my favorite bloggers, has another wonderful post on Peak Oil and how it will affect food production. There is little doubt that we're at or near peak oil. Denial is not an option, at least it's not a sensible option, if you have a family to care for, or even care about yourself.

Peak Energy and an Overview of its Implications for Food.

Then I was looking at her co-author's website, and came across this post:
Confessions of an Outlaw Chickener. It's a fun read, as well as a practical one. He mentions one of my hot buttons: the U.S. Farm Bill.....

Anyone who looks at the food industry up close in this country will undoubtedly come away angry. Sure we've given up our control over what we eat. That is, we were on watch over the years as multinational corporations came to dictate what we eat. But take a spin through the US Farm bill and I can't imagine you won't come away completely pissed off. It's corporate welfare straight from the mouths of a government that seems not to concern itself with the fact that more than 35 million American live food insecure in this country. 72% of the billions of dollars Doled out in the farm bill go to the 10% largest companies growing 5 crops: corn, wheat, soybean, rice and cotton- in virtual lockstep with the processed food industry.

I'd say the first thing we need to fix in this country is the cozy corporate welfare embedded in the farm bill, but that's not easy to do. We don't have flocks of highly-paid lobbyists swarming over Congress. Maybe what we need is flocks of low-paid chickens in our yards, small flocks, eating bugs and laying eggs for our breakfast. And we need to take back our food supply from these companies (you know the names). The ones getting billions of taxpayer's money, YOUR money. So--grow local, raise local, buy local, eat local.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Terroir: the taste of where you live

Terroir is a French term, commonly used to describe the special characteristics of fine wines. Terroir in its narrowest sense encompasses what we might call "microclimate"; the special characteristics of the soil on one side of a hill, the way the sun shines on the grapevines at each time of the year, the minerals in the water, the breezes or winds that affect the vines. These particular differences, in addition to the skills of the viniculturist and vintner, are what makes a wine from one small estate noticeably different from a wine from a neighboring small estate.

You need not go as far as distinguishing the really fine, and really expensive, wines from the cheaper. One reasonably priced and carefully created wine from a small vineyard is just as good, and noticeably different, from another. Terroir ties the wine that we drink to the place it was grown.

Winemaking in Colorado is off to a good start, particularly on the Western Slope, but I am not a wine expert, so let's look at this term from a wider perspective. What grows in Colorado that is especially fine? Are we familiar with a certain region where the peaches, or the beans, or the onions, have their own special flavor, the taste of home?

We can start with Western Slope peaches, so much better than California peaches that you would think they were another fruit altogether. And the same goes for the beautiful buttery yellow Colorado bartlett pears, available for only a few weeks in the early fall. It is more than just freshness, though freshness counts for some of it. The flavors are sweeter and more complex, because the fruit had to work harder.

It's too "easy" in California. Mild temperatures year round, plenty of water, massive orchards all treated the same, massive farms with spinach as far as the eye can see, all the same. Not the same as Grants Farm spinach, grown in the harsh climate north of Wellington.

Going back to fruit, a good Western slope apple's flavor wins out over a Washington State pampered well-watered apple. My husband tells me the upstate New York apples are absolutely tops, too, tart and crisp in the fall. I haven't had the pleasure of eating a good New York State apple.

On the other hand, it's hard to grow a hot chili pepper in New York. Too cool, too rich a soil, too much water, water, water. Chili peppers need to suffer: make it hot, make it dry, make the days scorching and the nights cold; I want to live in the desert. Northern New Mexico chilis have their own terroirs, and chili experts can tell you that the chilis from one valley are better than the chilis from another valley. And maybe these chilis are not "better" but different from those chilis.

Beans from Dove Creek in southern Colorado, in the San Luis Valley, are really the best I have ever tasted. The higher altitudes, the dry but slightly cooler days, maybe something special in the soil, makes for especially flavorful beans. LoveLandLocals, myself included, have really been enjoying the wonderful pinto beans.

As a society, we have pretty much lost our sense of these differences, since most of the supermarket food is anonymous, thrown together from every part of the globe, sold by price and cosmetic appearance rather than by taste and locality.

Once the food hits the industrial processing plants, any hint of terroir, of the special flavor of any ingredient, is lost in the background noise of high fructose corn sweetener, MSG in all its hundreds of manifestations, cottonseed oil (one of many on the label: count on the manufacturer to use the cheapest one), and multisyllabic words describing chemicals you have never heard of.

Gary Paul Nabhan wrote the first of the "locavore" books: Coming Home to Eat. He was hunting out the special foods of his region, Tucson and the Mojave desert. It's an arid region, and many of the traditional foods have been forgotten by the inhabitants. It was an adventure for him, hunting out the unknown treasures.

You don't have to eat a lot of imported foods to be a gourmet; the French and Italians don't. They know what is best in their neighborhood, in their home territory, and that's what they eat. They eat the sausages made by their cousin Luigi or Antoine, sold in the same shop by their grandparents before them. They eat the lettuces grown right outside the city, and trucked in fresh every morning. We've been to Italy, seen the farmlands outside Rome, eaten the perfectly fresh lettuce at a little hole-in-the-wall luncheonette.

There is nothing difficult here; nothing we can't do. We just need to have our eyes opened, or perhaps our tastes. Open your tastes to the special foods of Colorado. Appreciate the foods grown and raised by your neighbors. We need a Colorado cuisine that doesn't depend on California produce. We can do it. It's time to "come home to eat".

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Millet: the forgotten grain

I started my exploration of millet when I bought my first bag of organic millet grown in Sterling Colorado. I quickly learned the basic method of cooking, which I have mentioned in another post but will repeat below. Once you have cooked millet on hand, it can be used in a number of ways.

One big surprise to me is that millet was the original polenta in Italy, before corn came from the New World. I'm making millet polenta frequently now; I use it in meals and also as a nice quick snack, just cut out of the pan (kind of like a cookie or fudge, but not sweet).

Millet is also one of the grains used to make injera, the Ethiopian universal bread and eating utensil. The traditional Ethiopian dinner has a stack of big pancakes, made of millet or teff which was lightly fermented. You take a spoonful of a meat or vegetable dish (usually spicy), tear off a little piece of pancake, and pop the whole thing in your mouth. Delicious. No forks required.

Millet was the staple grain in northern China, before the shipment of rice from the south became common. So it fits well under stir-fries and sauced Chinese dishes, including spicy ones.

And millet is an obvious substitute for couscous, which is a pasta-type product made from wheat. Since I have celiac disease, wheat is out for me, but millet fits the bill perfectly as a substitute.

Millet is inexpensive too. You will want hulled millet (unhulled millet is good as birdseed). Bought in a 25-lb bag, I worked out that my millet is 18 cents a cup, therefore 6 cents a serving. It is a highly digestible grain, with a mild pleasant flavor.

Time for some recipes.

Basic Millet
Put one cup millet in saucepan. Cover with boiling water. Allow to soak one hour or more, or overnight. In the morning, rinse the grain twice; the water will look a little cloudy. There is a slight natural bitter coating on millet that you want to remove (just like quinoa). I don't bother with a colander, just carefully pour the water off the grain. Now add a little over one cup of fresh water, and salt to taste (I use about 1/2 tsp). Bring to boil and simmer 20 minutes. If you drain in a colander, you will need just a little more water. Cook until water is absorbed, and you see those little holes (just like cooked rice).

Using Cooked Millet

  • When fresh cooked, add a little butter or olive oil, and enjoy.

  • Or you can fry a couple of eggs and put over a dish of hot millet for a very tasty and easy breakfast

  • You can use it as a base for spaghetti sauce, chili, ragout, ratatouille, etc. etc. etc.

  • You can use it as a base for stir-fries and Asian type dishes

  • You can fix tabbouli with millet in place of the bulgur wheat: with chopped tomatoes, loads of chopped parsley, lemon juice and olive oil.

Ukrainian Millet Dish
You can modify ingredients to suit yourself on this, following the same basic cooking technique. I often eat it for breakfast.

Have cooked millet on hand.
Choose one or more of the following:

  • sliced non-cured cruelty-free bacon (locals can buy it at Rocky Plains or Windsor Dairy)

  • chopped onion or leek (from your local CSA, farmers market or garden)

  • chopped mushrooms (Portabellos are good, from Hazel Dell)

If you don't use the bacon, use olive oil or butter in the pan. Saute your basic ingredients till done to your taste. Pour a bit of water into the pan, then stir in the (already cooked) millet. Add a bit of salt if needed. Let the millet steam with the other ingredients for a minute or two, then stir and serve.

Millet Polenta
Start the same as for the Basic Cooked Millet, but after draining, add a little over 2 cups of water, and cook for 30 minutes. It gets very soft by then. Grease an 8x8 pan with olive oil, turn the millet into it, and smooth with a spoon until uniform in thickness. After it cools for 30 minutes or so, you should be able to cut it with a spatula, like brownies. After a few hours of settling, you can take those squares and brown them in a little butter or olive oil, just like polenta, and serve as a side dish or with a pasta sauce. Keeps well on the kitchen counter, loosely covered, for several days, if you can stay away from it that long.

You could add grated parmesan cheese at the end of cooking, or herbs either fresh or dried, for a different flavor. Finely diced dried tomatoes would be good too.

Millet Flour
For this you need millet flour, of course. Millet is easy to grind in a grain mill, or you could grind it in a blender or food mill. You don't want to grind millet too far ahead unless you refrigerate it, since the flour gets stale-tasting in a few weeks. Millet flour is available commercially, but I haven't tried it since I have many pounds of millet at home. I think fresh is best for this grain.

You can use millet flour in pancakes or biscuits, popovers, pizza crust, anything you'd like a little crunch in. I have used it alone in pancakes, but for most baking you would want to mix it with at least one more flour.

Those who can eat wheat, can mix it with wheat flour in baked goods. For gluten-free baking, mixing half millet flour and half buckwheat flour makes a wonderful pancake. I haven't tried popovers, but I think they'd be good with 1/2 millet, 1/4 potato starch and 1/4 tapioca flour. For pizza dough, mix with 1/3 garfava flour and 1/3 oat flour. Experiment!

My Favorite Millet Pancakes
For 1 serving. Double as needed.
1 egg beaten
1/3 cup millet flour
1/3 cup buckwheat flour
salt to taste
1/2 tsp baking powder
enough water to make your batter (something around 1/2 cup) or you could use milk or other liquid
1 tbs melted lard (HOMEMADE only) or your choice of oil or butter

Mix well. Pour batter into greased skillet or griddle, to make cakes 4-5" wide. When bubbles cover the top, turn and cook for a couple of minutes on the other side. Serving for one makes about 3 cakes.

I like them plain or with pepper jelly. I'm not a syrup enthusiast. Apple butter would be good too, or a savory curry paste or thick salsa. You can use them like injera, tearing off bits like impromptu edible spoons or mini-wraps, with savory meat or vegetables dishes or seasoned cottage cheese inside.

(Side note on lard: if you get really fine quality pork scraps, from free-range pastured pigs, you can make your own lard. Cut into small pieces and cook slowly in a kettle. Keep the temperature just high enough to keep it bubbling, as the water is driven off. Lower temperature as it gets closer to done. When it is almost done bubbling, strain out the crackling and pour the lard into freezer jars. The cracklings are delicious! You can use them in top of cornbread, or eat with a spoon, or sprinkle on top of mashed potatoes, etc. I keep my rendered lard in the freezer until I'm ready to use it. Then you can keep it in the frig or on the counter for a few weeks. DO NOT buy commercial chemicalized deodorized icky white lard. That stuff is not good for your health. Lard from healthy pigs has a different lipid profile, and has more unsaturated fat than saturated. You can tell because it is still soft in the frig.)

Overnight Millet, Buckwheat and Coconut Waffles

1 cup millet, lightly toasted in dry skillet and rinsed
1 cup buckwheat, lightly toasted in dry skillet
2 1/2 cups liquid: milk, soy milk, or water
1 large egg
1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
2 tablespoons cooking oil or butter
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
salt to taste

Prepare millet and buckwheat, put in blender with liquid. Let soak in frig overnight. Heat waffle iron (or you can make pancakes). Now add remaining ingredients into blender jar. Blend to make a batter. Bake waffles on your waffle iron as usual. Or make pancakes on a lightly greased griddle or skillet. Serves 4.


Millet is also fermented to make a sour porridge, or to make beer. Ethiopian injera is often fermented before baking too; I haven't tried that so can't tell you exactly how to do it. Injera is also made with teff flour or with combinations of grains.

Experiment! Write in your recipes for millet, if I have gotten you enthused about the possibilities.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Month 6: 'April is the cruelest month'

'April is the cruelest month' is a quote from T.S. Eliot. April was the month I was worrying about back in November when we started this way of eating. Stored vegetables gone, this year's vegetables won't show up until June or later. What to eat?

And in fact, our meals did become somewhat repetitious. I allowed the ninth Exception to be canned US organic tomatoes, just to give us some variety. This will be retired in summer when we get good Colorado tomatoes. And the tenth: peas, fresh, frozen, split peas for soup. .....We knew lettuce was coming.....

And so it did. We bought fresh Colorado-grown organic butter lettuce in our LoveLandLocal Food Buying Cooperative distributions. I bought three heads which we just finished. It's a luxury to have fresh local lettuce in a salad. You can also get Osage Gardens lettuce at the Whole Foods. We hope to have fresh Grants Farm spinach soon.

I am hoping to put in some season extenders in the yard: a cold frame, a small hoop house, or something like that. You can pick your own fresh greens nearly year round, with protection from the cold nights. Eliot Coleman's book "Four Season Gardening" has a lot of good advice on this.

So what were we eating in the "cruelest month"? Cincinnati chili on the beautiful tasty Colorado organic pinto beans, and occasionally on the last of the on-hand pasta. Gypsy soup with Colorado garbanzos and sausage, the last Hubbard squash, canned tomatoes (Exception). The traditional homemade pizza on Saturday nights, except I stopped having mine (gluten-free) because I ran out of pesto. Green peas in soups and as a side dish. Split pea soup with local non-cured ham shank. Spaghetti made with canned tomatoes (Exception), local sausage, and peas (Exception).

Very nice organic potatoes, sproutless in our distribution, which I'm eating up quickly since they're starting to sprout. A nice beef rump roast from the freezer, cooked with local onion and chili powder. Good with the potatoes. I'm still loving the millet. I will do another post just on millet (for those who aren't tired of hearing me praise it).

We still have our own fruit for desserts: applesauce, dried apples, dried peaches. And one splendid hubbard squash pie made with local eggs, honey and dairy, on-hand spices. Yum! I have
a few jars of farm pumpkin puree in the freezer too, in case we need another pie or two.

As always, getting good local meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products is not a problem. And now we have our Colorado staples of millet, quinoa, pintos, garbanzos, anasazis, and whole wheat flour. So, life is good, even in April. And our yard is filled with blooming fruit trees and shrubs, in white and shades of pink, so beautiful! A promise of fruit to come. Happy spring!