Thursday, February 23, 2012

Taking Winter Blahs Off the Table

Going green is one way to combat those midwinter blahs known as the Februaries and prepare for St Patrick's Day coming up. All those emerald gems sparkling on the plate--kale, collards, chard, rabe or rapini, spinach -- are nutritional treasure chests that can keep you going strong. So are their paler cousins, cabbages, Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi. They are seasonal eating at its finest. Serve up a simple vinegary slaw of red and green cabbage, carrots and kohlrabi, seasoned perhaps with dill seed or caraway.

This is also the last hurrah for brilliant orange winter squashes. A jazzy way to brighten up sagging winter spirit is to turn them into a serving vessel for a beef stew, a chili or a colorful pilaf. Here's a recipe perfect for right now because it celebrates what's been stored in the pantry, puts dazzling color on the table and could be a meal in itself. It does take a bit of effort--easy all of it, which also makes it perfect for dispelling cabin fever. Make a party of it. It'll serve 6.

Red Kuri Squash Stuffed with a Saffron, Apricot and Cherry Pilaf

1 lg (2 1/2 lb) red kuri squash--or sugar pumpkin
1 cup (heaping) long grain Basmati or Jasmine rice (rinsed)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp unsalted butter
a big pinch of saffron threads
1 1/2 tsp ground coriander
Peel of 1/3 orange (no pith please), sliced into very thin strips
1/4 cup pistachio nutmeats
1/4 cup roasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
1/4 cup dried cherries soaked in boiling water 5 minutes and drained
8-10 dried apricots, chopped into bite-size pieces
1 tsp rosewater
1/2 tsp salt
Freshly ground pepper to your taste
1 bunch flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1 bunch mint coarsely chopped or 1/2 cup dried mint leaves
1 bunch dill, coarsely chopped
1 lemon cut in wedges for garnish
1 cup thick fresh yogurt for serving

Preheat over to 400º. Soak the saffron threads in 1 tsp hot water.

Wash the squash and microwave it just long enough to soften it so you can put a knife in.
Cut off the stalk end to use as a lid. Scoop out all seeds and strings. Put the lid back on the squash, put the squash on a baking sheet and put it in the oven for 1 hour.

Now, put the rice in a pot with just enough water to cover it. Add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Lower heat to simmer, partially cover the pot and cook 10-12 minutes until all the water is absorbed. (The rice will not be totally cooked, no worries.)

Meanwhile in a wide lidded skillet or casserole, heat oil and butter until butter melts. Stir in coriander, orange peel, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, drained cherries and apricots. Sauté one minute. Add the rice, saffron (with water) and rose water. Season with salt and pepper.

Turn off the heat. Cover the pot with a clean, dry dish towel and press the pan lid down over it to a tight fit. Let the pilaf steam for 10 minutes. Toss in the parsley, dill and mint.

When squash is ready, lift off the lid and fill it with the pilaf, gently stuffing it in. Put the lid back on and put the stuffed squash back in the oven for 20 minutes.

Remove the lid to serve. Slice the lemon into wedges. There are two ways to present this: one is to simply put the wedges all around the squash on a serving plate, put 1/4 of the yogurt on top of the pilaf and pass the rest in a separate bowl, and let everybody dig in. Or you can slice a 1/2" thick round off the top of the squash, lay this ring on a plate, fill it with the pilaf, top this with yogurt and place a lemon wedge to one side.

Serve as the center of attention with a side of garlicky steamed greens or serve with roasted meat. Either way, you can add the slaw above for a nutritiously delicious meal as colorful as a summer garden. You really don't need to eat tomatoes, blueberries and bell peppers flown in from South America.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Food Valentines

This is a valentine, sharing the love for two Mainers warming hearts this February as they stand out in the food field standing up for our health and future. May the force be with Jim Gerritsen and Chellie Pingree so the rest of us can eat and be well.

Gerritsen, a farmer from the end of the known American world in Aroostook County, is leading the national charge against that Goliath of chemically impregnated food: Monsanto. Its pesticides and other non-nutrient additives are now embedded in 80% of all corn, soy, canola, sugar beets and cotton grown in this country. Holding the patent, and thus the profits, Monsanto has spread its seed so vigorously, it almost has the whole world in its hands. And it keeps reaching out, planning to be sole creator of the world's plant food supply.

This means God is dead all over again. And some people won't accept that.

In early January protests erupted in Nepal when the American dominated International Monetary Fund tried to force Monsanto's engineered seeds on local farmers as a non-negotiable part of its aid package. On January 31, Gerritsen and his Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association marched into a Federal Courthouse with an alliance of 82 other small farm and seed co-ops to say essentially: enough is enough. “We want nothing to do with Monsanto. We don’t want their seed. We don’t want their technology. We don’t want their contamination.”

Gerritsen was referring to the way Monsanto famously and ferociously sues innocent farmers whose crops get contaminated by its patented plants in fields nearby because wind sprays their pollen. These lawsuits drive farmers to bankruptcy and of course out of the field, conveniently furthering Monsanto's monopoly. Its lawyers investigate and harass on average 500 small farms a year, and have launched 144 lawsuits for patent infringement. Nobody knows how many non-Monsanto farmers crops have also been ruined.

Gerritsen and allies have sued to stop Monsanto from suing innocent people for what Mother Nature does. They're suing to be left alone. It's already bad enough that Monsanto products have contaminated their plants, compromising and threatening the entire base of authentic organic agriculture and all the precious heirloom seeds. It's already bad enough that science has now shown the source of the huge honeybee holocaust to be the toxic pollen in Monsanto's pesticide impregnated plants. It's bad enough experience has now shown that pests rather quickly develop resistance to these poisonous plants, turning them into useless but toxic waste that contaminates our water and soil. It would be good to leave the organic folks to their own devices.

While Gerritsen is in court, Chellie Pingree is in Congress leading the fight of a lonely army of small farmers and farmers' marketeers for a fair share of Federal funds that subsidize the humungous, heartless corporate USDA sanctioned agriculture Monsanto represents. Since the Farm Bill only passes through Congress every four or five years, it's now or maybe never that small change can be diverted from the huge piles of cash traditionally heaped on wealthy individuals in New York, Seattle and Miami who control America's commodity crops and almost all its wide swaths of farmland, comically called family farms.

Pingree is a prime sponsor of The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act, which would help more young people get into sustainable agriculture and herding by providing loans, training and other support for authentic family farms in the old fashioned sense. If you don't want to end up eating lab created food, you should be worried about getting more young people to get their hands dirty this way because the average of the American farmer today is 56.

Pingree is also behind The Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act of 2011, which would help small farmers and farmers' market associations, in part by helping to set up greater distribution networks for their produce, reaching out to schools, hospitals and prisons as well as supermarkets. It's all about local, sustainable, healthy for soul and soil and community. Of course it has many enemies, well fed by profitable corporate farmers.

If you need yet another reason to give your heart and perhaps a helping hand to Gerritsen and Pingree, here's one. Just last week came yet another food horror story, this one about the discovery of more than 1 million eggs contaminated with listeria, a deadly bacteria happy to grow in the refrigerator. Yes 1 million eggs, a lot of chicken energy and effort wasted ironically in the name of efficiency. It turns out that there are actually machines that hard boil eggs, then cool and peel them as they move along a conveyor, thousands an hour, into huge buckets of salt water, which are sealed and shipped to processing plants that make those egg salad sandwiches and carryout containers you find in supermarkets, airports, and franchised corner stores. Also potato salad with egg.

"The lesson is: peel your own eggs," said Marion Nestle, the voice of food safety and editor of Food Politics. And of course get them from a known trustworthy, local supplier.

If Jim Gerritsen and Chellie Pingree prevail, that would soon be as easy as pie. If not, we may end up eating our hearts out in horror.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Food for Dummies

Twenty two years ago, as I was pulling a leek from the supermarket display, an older woman stopped short in front of me and frowned. "What is that nasty thing?" Talk about tipping points. I went home and plotted the first edition of How to Fix a Leek...and Other Food From the Farmers' Market to tell people what ordinary vegetables and fruits were. I wrote it with and for farmers tired of answering the same questions over and over: What is that? How long will you have it? What do I do with it? The ignorance was mind boggling.

Most people weren't calling leeks "nasty" any more but they were still wondering what the hell to do with one when I brought out the second edition a year ago, updated to include the more "exotic" produce northern farmers had somehow managed to coax from their soil, the craze for heirlooms, and more culinary history. People who bought it were encouraged by knowing the differences between goat and sheep cheese, and what to do with kale, since they were now hearing how nutritious it is. A few readers said knowing carrots came from Afghanistan and that podded peas are a relatively new invention, one that Thomas Jefferson was madly tinkering with at Monticello, made food "interesting", which I keep hoping means more familiar and less frightening so they get out there and get more.

Not even the Taliban are as terrifying as our food ignorance. It is so profound and wide-spread that yesterday several educated and well traveled members of my California Dharma group actually asked me over lunch to teach them how to eat seasonally, meaning what could they eat right now in February. Supermarkets had deprived them of all sense of time, and perhaps their health. The discussion started over what we were eating: warm buttery bulgur with carrots, dates and dried figs, almonds, pine nuts and pistachios, accompanied by orange inflected lentil salad and fresh yogurt. I described this as winter pantry food. But I did allow as how farmers' markets would offer some fresh produce also worth a February meal.

Talk of farmers' markets turned to the now dubious use of the word "organic", then heated up when the former nun in our groups said she'd recently been diagnosed with a cancer--after eating nothing but so-called "organic" vegetables from her local Safeway. Yes. All that "organic" out of season stuff grown in South America soil, flown thousands of miles and sprayed before it can enter the country... Enough said. I wrote about it earlier.

"I don't know what's seasonal?" she said, "except maybe what's at a farmers' market, what you get from a CSA."

I asked if she ate the same veggies over and over--a surefire recipe for cancer--and she said, yes, naming the usual supermarket suspects: tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, potatoes--for lack of knowing what else to eat. She and the three men in the group were astonished when I said the simplest rule was to follow the kitchen cues Nature sends: eat cold weather crops in cold weather (kales, chards, broccolis, lettuces, cabbages and winter squashes) and hot weather crops like tomatoes, eggplant, okra, corn and berries, in hot weather, relying in springtime on wintered over godsends like parsnips and leeks plus early risers like asparagus and peas. I was astonished that my no-brainer seemed such great wisdom, they proposed I take them on farmers' market tours to teach what to eat when and how to prepare it. And this is California!

And so Kitchen Literacy, Ann Vileisis' densely footnoted report of how corporate interests spent the entire 20th Century assiduously and assertively pulling an iron curtain over millenniums of accrued culinary wisdom to manipulatively divorce people from their own instincts, and create a Medieval food dark age wherein fear and ignorance make folks totally dependent on industrial packaged food. This story of food for dummies is best summarized by the famous exclamation of Joseph Conrad's character up the river in the heart darkness: "The horror! The horror!" Our 21st Century factory farms, destroyed land, contamination outbreaks and epidemics of anorexia, cancer, diabetes and obesity are tributes to the triumph of corporate food totalitarianism. So are big Ag's current political victories over food pyramids, modified foods, drug use and getting frozen pizza sauce illogically called a nutritious vegetable. Look out! It is packing 120 years of getting its way. That's a big bang.

We can only get out of the way by getting back what they took away: our food sense. For millenniums humans have relied on their eyes to tell them food "looks all right to eat." This is why the Chinese even today want their fish and chickens alive in the marketplace: they want to see if they are lively with good health. Humans have relied on their nose to tell them something smells a little off, a bit rotten. They have relied on touch to tell them a fruit or vegetable is too hard to be ripe, too squishy to be fresh--or that meat is tender. Hopefully these survival instincts aren't dead yet.

There is of course no finer place to show them off or simply hone them than a farmers' market. Here we can pinch and smell and examine what we are about to put inside our body. Here we can find that light mark on a melon rind that indicates it actually grew on the ground or those cracks around a tomato stem that indicate it was really was sun ripened and not gassed in a long distance truck.

Here we can find out what's growing right now, so it can make us grow. Here we can ask about pesticides or fertilizer or growing conditions and read the face to face answer from the person who produced the product.
Here's where we can find accountability and thus responsibility. And probably not a very large carbon footprint.

Here's where we can take two steps backward in time to the way life used to be in order to go forward the way it should be. What a breakthrough. I think of it as "the end of mystery."