Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Syncretic Food Culture - Part 4 - On My Own

“Do you make sandwiches?”
Shortly after I asked, I realized what a stupid question it was.
It was my first week in New York, and I was lured out of my efficiency hotel into a strip mall by a yarn shop. It was situated right next to a deli. I had never been into a real deli before, but at the supermarket, we used to buy fancy rolls and sliced cold-cuts. Then we would take them home and make poor-boys in the oven.
The guys in the deli made a big joke of it, and it was like they were handing out wings, and not the blue cheese and hot sauce variety either.
Once in my own apartment and in charge of my own food choices, I tried many recipes found in my first cookbook, “Recipes for a Small Planet”. My first experiment with soy grits tasted a bit like barfed-up dog food. I made a weekly batch of the granola, and then branched out to various muffin recipes. Upstate New York was dotted with farm stands on the honor system, so in the fall I picked up a bushel of apples and a huge bag of table squash. I joined the local food co-op which offered an additional discount in exchange for extra work hours. My main job was to pick up free-range eggs and fresh milk from local farmers and bring them to the co-op.
One of my favorite jobs was to restock the macrobiotic section. I had never heard of any of these strange foods before, but was intrigued by the large wooden vats of miso and the tofu blocks floating in large plastic buckets. We were the only place in town that carried tofu retail, and we did a pretty high volume on the Saturday mornings I worked there. The macrobiotic way became my new lifestyle, and was really my first formal introduction to eating local foods on purpose. In macrobiotics, it is always better to eat local, both in place (especially latitudinally) and in time. (Of course, it was also OK to eat any kind of food from Japan.) I really warmed up to the idea of eating locally and seasonally, with whole foods. The co-op made it easy for me. All the foods and produce selections were labeled with place of origin, and if they were grown organically or transitionally. I enjoyed making the new signs when we started carrying a new product or vegetable.
When I got to California, macrobiotics didn’t survive the move. Somehow it didn’t seem right to shun certain tropical foods that were growing like weeds in my backyard. What worked in the cold Northeast wasn’t working as well in our Mediterranean climate. I started eating tomatoes, peppers and the citrus fruits that my neighbors gave me. But I never did give up my love of seasonal eating or my favorite comfort food, miso soup.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Stored sunshine

Throughout the summer and into fall, pumpkins and winter squashes have been marching their way into the kitchen.
What is it about pumpkins? At all the corners of my garden, my baby pumpkins accumulate right by the fencing. It is almost like they run run run as fast as they can, and then when they hit a fence roadblock, they say, "Well, this is a good a place as any," and they flower like crazy and all the pumpkins are piled in a heap by the chicken wire.
The tatume plant employs a a different strategy. It likes to run along the edge of the fence, leaving the fruit at carefully spaced intervals along the way. The plants situate themselves so that the fruit sticks out through the chicken wire fence out into the pathway.
Whatever feng shui strategy the mighty orange ones decide to follow out in the garden, I am in charge after the harvest. I try to keep up with a FIFO system, and have put the babies up on cardboard box pedestals so they won't rot as easily. I dust, rearrange and dote over these orange Hummels, and like chickens, I bring the fresh ones in every night to keep them from predators and let them rest in their "nesting boxes". Every few days, an older pumpkin goes to the chopping block.
Today is the shortest day, but I made up for it by eating plenty of stored sunshine. When I am busy or tired, it just seems like too much work to "boot up" a squash. This week I tried something new. I cut up a buttercup and threw it in the pressure cooker. It cooked for only 12 minutes, and when I was still warm, I put on some local butter and honey. I think this is about the best squash I have ever eaten in my life.
The other squashes are looking a bit nervous, and they have good reason to be worried.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Es ist ein Ros' Entsprungen

Behold, a branch is growing, right out of the place where I planted the chayote squash. I guess it is coming back to life after all. There is another branch a'growing on my kitchen counter, of loveliest form and grace, right out of the squash I was to prepare for a Christmas dinner. Right now, it's colonizing the kitchen, wrapping many tendrils around my window coverings and heading towards a light fixture. I must do something.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cookie Exchange - My winning entry??

Every year my neighbor hosts a cookie and gift exchange, and this year I have decided to use my last December exception meal to celebrate Christmas and eat lots of great locally-made cookies.
I thought long and hard about this one. What prize-winning cookie could I make with red amaranth, honey and chard? One year I DID make some interesting dog biscuits for the gift exchange, and last year made another really popular batch with favorite locally-sourced ingredients such as chicken fat, winter squash and dried kale. They turned out to be less of a hit when my husband popped one in his mouth before fully comprehending what they were all about, but the dog really loved them.
I couldn't do this to my friends again, after all, I want them to remain friends. I decided to make something simple and non-local, something I really like, but with an added decadence.
The cookie would have to contain lots of pecans, for sure, and probably macadamia nuts and cherries. I stopped at a couple of stores looking for cherries, but could find none.
Yesterday at the public market, a man was selling hoshigaki persimmons, so I bought a package to use in January. Today I decided to incorporate them into my oatmeal cookies. Here's the recipe:

Hashigaki Oatmeal Cookies
Use the recipe on the lid of the Quaker Oats box with the following changes:
use only 3/4 cup raisins
Add 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Add 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
Add 1/2 cup chopped macadamia nuts
Add 1/2 cup chopped pecans
Add 1 cup chopped hoshigaki dried persimmons
Bake according to package directions

Next week I hope to get to the public market again and purchase more of these wonderful persimmon treats before the season is over.

Stepford farmers market?

I went to my new local Farmer's Market today. I guess all the real Ventura county farmers were at the Ojai market. Only a few veggie booths had food that looked real. Several fruit booths were staffed with knowledgeable and friendly merchants, but the fruit was mostly from Northern California. There was an egg guy from San Diego.
What I found most unusual is a complete absence of signage. These farmers and their farms have no names, no business cards, no addresses, no organic certificates on display.
Yes, yes, all the strawberries were from Oxnard, they said.
Then again, I stopped at a booth with all sorts of overpriced candied nuts, and artificially-colored dried fruit. When I asked about origin, the lady with the blank stare told me they were from Lancaster. I mentioned that they couldn't all have been grown in Lancaster, and asked which foods were grown there. She said most of them were. When I asked which foods specifically, she admitted that only the cashews had been grown in Lancaster.
I still haven't decided if I am going to join the Locavore Lites in 2010. I will have to agree to visit a farmer's market at least once a month. I sure wish there was a way to be a Locavore Lite while enjoying my own local vegetables instead of patronizing fake markets.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hard Frost

This week, I went outside to find that a heavy frost killed several basil plants and the rain that had collected on a container lid was freezing into large sheets, trapping a lone chayote seedling. Unfortunately, I did not move all my tomato and pepper plants out of harms way. I will know in a few weeks which plants will survive and which I will have to replace. The ice-locked chayote seedling is doing well, but unfortunately, another larger seedling located in an open area has died back. Hopefully it will regrow.
The dehydrator is bursting with peppers this week, filling my living room with the scent of sweet peppers and sending me into coughing fits from the drying habanero's.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Packing up for the Winter

My backyard garden is in transition. A few extra kale volunteers and some Chinese kale are safely tucked into a row cover. There is also one row of beets from my own seeds. (They are a cross of Chioggia and Detroit dark red beets, who knows what will happen?)
Today I picked the last of the sweet peppers and trimmed the branches down to stubs. Tomorrow I will tuck the plants under the eaves and try to leave them alone during the winter. I snacked on the last ripe tomato and a few jalapeno peppers. The peppers weren't hot, typical for this time of year.
This weekend I will harvest the rest of the poblano peppers and slowly turn them into ancho's in the dehydrator.
I had planned to remove the summer vines from several planters and start some winter baby greens, but apparently the tomatoes got the demolition twitter and got back to work. Will I have Sungold tomatoes at the final locavore potluck in January? They may be tasteless, but it will still be delicious.

Winter Squash at the Community Garden

It was a real treat to get to the community garden after several days off for the holidays. I don't usually notice how much it grows when I visit every day. Since I am entertaining guests this week, I need lots of fresh veggies for soup and salads. Here's what is in the harvest basket this week:
I am still harvesting a bit of zucchini and baby butternut squash! They are tiny but very appreciated. The beans have been growing and flowering and I was able to harvest several servings. I harvested over a cup of small broccoli flowerettes, and a couple of small fennel bulbs. I left the leeks alone. Before Thanksgiving, I harvested gobs of leeks, only to leave them at home when packing our car for the trip, so I have plenty. I did snag a few scallions. I also brought home plenty of kale and chard, two greens that were greatly missed during our time away. I also harvested plenty of celery for the bean pot.
We made a large salad with freckles romaine lettuce and baby purple mustard. This practice will probably continue almost daily until late spring.
And the new events at the garden? The cabbage is bursting out of its cage, so I set them free. My transplanted lettuce has been eaten down to stubs inside its cage. Slugs? Not sure, but I am sure something is happy and well-fed. The garlic is up, and the newer broccoli plants are ready to start flowering.