Articles by Author
Culinary icon Anne Willan has just released “Secrets From the La Varenne Kitchen,” a brief compendium of “50 Essential Recipes Every Cook Needs To Know.” This amazing book includes the recipes that are the backbone course for professional chefs and that Willan’s legendary school Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris has been creating since 1975.
Among the dishes are fish aspic, exquisitely specific details on puff pastry and 10 types of sorbet. But one recipe caught my eye: Court Bouillon — or in rough English translation: “Quick Broth.” As a mom who doesn’t have the time for more intricate recipes and whose two young girls don’t have the palates for aspic yet, I liked the sound of that. I called Anne Willan to get her thoughts.
“It’s very interesting that you’ve chosen court bouillon,” Willan said from her home in Santa Monica, California, “because it’s not something anybody thinks of using nowadays. It really is right in sync with contemporary cooking,” she continued. “It’s very useful because today people always want to cook things healthfully and simply.”
Willan’s definition of court bouillon is simple and clear: “It’s a meatless and fatless broth, so very simple, but something that just adds flavor to whatever’s cooked in it.” The recipe, which is included below, is easy, but I was hoping to get some insider secrets. Willan was happy to comply, although clearly none of this seemed like a big secret to her: “Thinly slice the carrots,” she told me, “so that they give up their flavor in 15 or 20 minutes. Slice the onions fairly thinly, but not to worry about it. The green herbs you just drop in, keep the stems, they have lots of taste.”
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The real secret of court bouillon is properly pairing the food being cooked in the broth with a sympathetic acidic ingredient. Traditionally, the acid used in court bouillon would be vinegar, wine or lemon juice. Willan provided more nuanced distinctions: “For whitefish, I’d probably go for wine, because you don’t want too strong a flavor. For darker fish, possibly lemon juice or vinegar because it balances the stronger flavor of the fish.”
In traditional French cuisine, court bouillon is a liquid used for simmering, and then it’s tossed out. But as we discussed using the broth as a part of the meal, Willan became intrigued, because that’s simply part of her cooking ethos. “Never throw anything away,” she said. “When you’ve got lovely cooking liquid from something like a big salmon, do something with it — fish soup with the leftover.”
I could hear her brain begin to click as she explored the Culinary Thought Experiment: “The liquid will have acquired the flavor of what’s been cooking in it,” she said. “So what I would like to do is boil it down, and make a little sauce with it, mount it with butter or something.”
Then her brain went into high gear: “You could do lovely experiments with it. I certainly haven’t gone into it myself, but you could do an Asian court bouillon, or a hot court bouillon. You’d use chili peppers, wouldn’t you? It’s got to be something pure, hasn’t it?”
From the wisdom behind La Varenne
This was more intriguing than interview questions: Willan was asking and answering herself, giving me a view into a creative culinary mind that has long fascinated me as I’ve gobbled up her writings and her recipes from the classic “From My Château Kitchen” to her dish-y memoir “One Soufflé at a Time.” As she brainstormed the possibilities for court bouillon, her encyclopedic knowledge of cooking became clear, as did her passion for food and good eating.
“Perhaps I’d use coriander instead of parsley. And then, what would you use it for? If you push it a little bit, you could use it for a risotto or cooking quinoa. Or even grits or corn meal.”
By the time we were done, Willan had improvised a court bouillon for down-home Southern cooking and an Asian-influenced broth with the addition of soy sauce, cilantro and rice wine vinegar. She cautioned me against using too much chili pepper if I wanted to try a hot version because the flavor of the pepper would concentrate as the broth cooked down. It was an invigorating conversation — an insight into a culinary mind-set deeply rooted in the basics, but excited to jump in and experiment.
I love my copy of “Secrets from the La Varenne Kitchen,” and I intend to use it to build those basic skills that every cook needs to know — whether they’re a chef at a high-end restaurant or a mom with kids to feed. And court bouillon seems to be an inspired place for me to start. Check out the slideshow that includes Willan’s secrets and two dishes that riff on the recipe.
By Anne Willan, courtesy Spring House Press
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: 1 quart
1 quart water
1 carrot, sliced
1 small onion, sliced
1 bouquet garni
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup white wine or 1/3 cup vinegar or 1/4 cup lemon juice
1. Combine all the ingredients in a pan (not aluminum), cover and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered 15 to 20 minutes and strain.
Main photo: Court Bouillon is tap water with a little bit of salt, peppercorn, sliced onion, parsley, bay leaf, sliced carrot and something acidic — often lemon juice, but equally often white wine and occasionally vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
Popcorn is an ancient superfood — a simple and nutritious form of a 9,000-year-old staple. Popcorn is DIY food preservation at its most basic and most delicious.
Popcorn is simply preserved corn … a way of saving the harvest. Fresh corn can, of course, be boiled, roasted, steamed or baked. But corn became a staple in the Western Hemisphere because it could be dried and stored all winter. Corn was first domesticated in Mexico from a wild grass nearly 9,000 years ago. Archeologists have discovered corncobs from the northern coast of Peru that could date to 6,700 years ago, and scientists believe that this dried corn was eaten as popcorn and ground into corn flour.
First in a historic how-to series for home cooks, canners and kids
Benjamin Franklin remarked on the magical properties of corn that would “pop.” Franklin marveled at the mysterious recipe of “parching corn,” which he wrote about in 1790. He described how the Native Americans “fill a large pot or kettle nearly full of hot ashes, and pouring in a quantity of corn, stir it up with the ashes, which presently parches and burst the grain.” This “bursting” was shocking to Franklin, since it “threw out a substance twice its bigness.” Franklin boasted that popcorn — when ground to a fine powder and mixed with water — created a veritable superfood, claiming that “six ounces should sustain a man a day.”
“Superfood” may seem like a bit of hype for a snack most often eaten while watching bad movies. But in 2012, researchers at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania reported that popcorn has more antioxidant polyphenols than any other fruit or vegetable. One serving provides more than 70% of a person’s daily serving of whole grain, and a single 4-cup portion provides 5 grams of fiber. Popcorn is no longer a guilty pleasure, it’s a virtuous reward.
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The “bursting” that gives popcorn its name is the result of physics inherent in that tiny white or golden nubbin. Inside a popcorn kernel’s outer hull lies the endosperm, which is made of soft starch and a bit of water. Although all types of corn will “pop” to some extent, popcorn will actually explode and turn inside out when heated. To pop successfully, a kernel of dried popcorn should ideally have a moisture level of 13.5% to 14%. When the kernel is heated to an internal temperature somewhere between 400 to 460 F, the water in the endosperm expands, building up pressure that eventually causes the hull to burst. Steam is released and the soft starch inside the kernel puffs up around the shattered hull.
A popcorn worth the obsession
The type of popcorn that comes out of the microwave is often a poor substitute for heritage breeds or locally sourced popcorn. My children and I are currently obsessed with purple popcorn, which we buy dried on the cob at our farmers market or as “Amish Country Purple Popcorn” from the Troyer Cheese Company. I prefer to roast it in a skillet with canola oil and coarse sea salt — simple and basic. My kids’ prefer their popcorn covered in a spice mixture we created, containing cocoa powder, sugar, and cinnamon (though this may counteract some of the health benefits). For adults I add an additional “kick” with cayenne pepper. Try this with a few types of popcorn — each in its own bowl for the sake of comparison — and you’ll have more than a movie snack, you’ll have a healthy, crowd-pleasing conversation starter that won’t last long.
Cinnamon-Cocoa Popcorn With a Kick
Cook time: 15 minutes, no prep time required.
Total time: 15 minutes
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
1/4 teaspoon cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (optional)
3 tablespoons canola oil
1/3 cup popcorn kernels
1. Heat a 2- to 3-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes.
2. While pan heats, place cocoa powder, cinnamon, sugar, sea salt and cayenne pepper (if desired) in a small bowl. Stir to combine.
3. Back at the stove, turn heat down to medium high and add oil to heated pan. Carefully place two or three popcorn kernels in oil and cover pan with lid.
4. After test kernels pop, add enough popcorn to cover the bottom of the pan in a single layer — about 1/3 cup.
5. When kernels start to pop, lower heat to medium and shake pan gently until popping stops. (I like to rotate the pan in a circular motion over the burner to keep the popcorn moving.)
6. Pour popped corn into a large bowl. Sprinkle popcorn with topping mixture, toss to coat evenly, and eat immediately. Coated popcorn can be stored in an airtight container for several days, but it will lose a bit of its crunch.
Main photo: American heritage purple popcorn reveals the beauty of this gluten-free, kid-friendly, ancient superfood. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
Gardening in winter hardly seems ideal to those of us in cold climates, but for Craig LeHoullier, the season of snow brings the first opportunity to plan his summer tomato crop. A tomato adviser for Seed Savers Exchange and author of the recently published book “Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time,” LeHoullier is an expert in the field, having developed, introduced and named almost 200 tomato varieties.
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Over the past 30 years, LeHoullier has brought a number of heirloom tomato varieties back from the brink of extinction. Perhaps his most notable contribution is the Cherokee Purple, a tomato that came to him as an envelope of seeds sent by John D. Green and is now one of the most popular varieties in the Seed Exchange catalog.
LeHoullier’s love for heirloom tomatoes began as a hobby, but after retiring from his career as a chemist and project manager in the pharmaceutical industry in 2007, this passion blossomed into a second career. LeHoullier lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, Susan, and is known within the heirloom tomato community as NCTomatoMan.
I caught up with LeHoullier before the launch of his book tour and got his advice on how to successfully grow heirloom tomatoes in my own backyard.
Winter gardening: prime time for research
LeHoullier says he gets about a monthlong break between digging up the last of his dead tomato plants each fall and the appearance of the first seed catalogs, when the real work of planning the garden begins. This lull in the action is prime time for research. Online sites such as Dave’s Garden, Tomatoville and GardenWeb can provide a good starting point for new gardeners. LeHoullier recommends searching for “garden discussion groups,” “tomato discussion groups” and “top 10 tomatoes” to begin your reading.
Determine your gardening goals
LeHoullier points out that gardening is a personal experience and that “Each one of us will choose how much of our lives we’ll pour into it.” Growing great tomatoes requires figuring out what kind of gardener you are — or would like to be.
LeHoullier suggests that you think about what you want to get out of your tomato garden. Before you place your seed order, consider whether you want to garden because you want to grow food; because it’s a good hobby to work off a few extra pounds; or because you want to use it as a teaching tool for your friends, family or children.
Ask yourself: Do I want a high yield? Am I looking for huge tomatoes to impress my friends? Do I want an incredible flavor experience? Or do I want to grow something that I’ve never seen before? The answer to these questions will help you focus your research on the tomato varieties that suit your gardening goals.
Figure out what kind of tomatoes you like to eat
Tomatoes come in a wide variety of colors, flavors and sizes. Most of us have not tried many of the thousands of tomato varieties that exist in the world. LeHoullier believes that the best way to know which tomatoes you should grow is to decide which tomatoes you’d like to eat. Visit farmers markets and stores such as Whole Foods to try tomato varieties you’ve never eaten and notice which flavor profiles excite you.
Get to know your gardening climate
Understanding your growing season is crucial. If you live in a warm climate where summer lasts more than 150 days, then the maturity date doesn’t matter much. But if you’re in a colder climate, pay close attention to the maturity date of the tomatoes you want to grow. Talk to friends in your neighborhood who are avid gardeners and vendors at local farmers markets to see which tomato varieties grow best for them.
Seeds vs. seedlings
LeHoullier says that “At a basic level, people will want to understand that growing tomatoes from seed opens up the world for you to try different colors, sizes and shapes.” That said, starting tomatoes from seeds can be a tricky proposition. Consider your capabilities and experience with growing tomatoes from seed. If your tolerance for failure is low, begin by planting seedlings.
Hybrids vs. heirlooms
Although LeHoullier says he “won’t make the blanket statement that some make that heirlooms are always more disease susceptible and difficult to grow than hybrids,” he does allow that heirlooms can be finicky and that “every tomato — including the hybrid varieties — has its own personality and foibles.”
Start small (Do as I say, not as I do.)
After you’ve familiarized yourself with the seemingly endless choices in the tomato world, it’s time to get planting. Showing restraint is key, especially for new gardeners.
Raising thousands of tomato varieties isn’t for everyone. (Or in fact, for most people.) LeHoullier cautions new growers to start small, in spite of the fact that he has a huge and ever-growing tomato collection. LeHoullier identifies himself as a “hobby collector” — he’s into beer brewing, roasting his own coffee, bird watching, kayaking, and has countless other hobbies in addition to what he calls “the tomato thing.” He describes himself as a “seeker who is never satisfied.” It is this tendency that has led LeHoullier to raise a collection of tomatoes that now hits the 3,000 mark.
One reason that LeHoullier’s collection has grown so large is that he has inherited the collections of gardeners who have become overwhelmed. “People send me entire collections because they can’t take care of them.”
Disappointment is an opportunity for learning
A scientist by training and experience, LeHoullier sees gardening as “an exciting hobby to learn stuff” and reminds us that “Each year, X number of plants are gonna die. Critters are gonna eat another bunch of plants, but that’s great because we learn from it and the next year we try different things to avoid that problem, knowing that other problems will arise.”
The bottom line
LeHoullier asserts some basic goals: Do a lot of searching. Ask a lot of questions. Make an accurate assessment of your interest level. Taste every tomato you can get your hands on. Recognize that there aren’t a lot of hard and fast answers to gardening questions. There are just, as LeHoullier says, “an infinite number of variables for every act a gardener takes.”
Perhaps most important, LeHoullier cheers us on in our tomato-growing efforts by reminding us that, “If you can find them, and buy them, and taste them, and like them, there’s no reason you can’t grow them.”
Main photo: Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato, named by Craig LeHoullier, author of “Epic Tomatoes.” Credit: Susan Lutz
Canners like me tend to give gifts in cans or jars: marmalade from the backyard tree, red wine vinegar made from the leftover bottles of a special party, goat cheese hand-rolled by the kids.
But sometimes the cupboards are bare. And sometimes you want a little something from Santa yourself. That’s when you need ideas from canners — for canners.
In my experience there are three major styles of food preservers: I call them old school, hipster and science geek. (There are, of course, many other types and hundreds of sub-genres.) The old-school canner likes to preserve the way Grandma did. The hipster is looking for something that preserves with some style. And the science geek is often more interested in the process and cares less that the homemade vinegar tastes good than that the techniques are cool. They each have their own needs when it comes to preservation gear and gadgets.
This is my list for holiday giving, both for presents I’ll be giving to fellow food preservers and, of course, for my own wish list.
Top gifts for food preservers
1. Finishing salt from J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, $9 for 3.5-ounce jar, $25 for 1-pound bag.
Serious canners tend to be obsessed with salt, even the fancy kinds that aren’t actually used in food preservation. I discovered this hand-harvested, small-batch finishing salt at Monticello’s harvest festival in the fall. Chefs and speakers at the festival were wedged together in a tiny booth tasting and admiring the complex flavors of this salt. Made by siblings Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne, this salt is a reinvention of an older tradition of salt processing by their ancestor William Dickinson, who started mining salt along the Kanawha River in the Appalachian Mountains in 1817. I have a case of Dickinson’s 3.5-ounce jars of salt stashed on a shelf ready to be given as hostess gifts. (Truth be told, it’s a case minus two jars, as I’ve decided to keep a couple for myself.)
2. 1.5-liter lacto-fermentation kit from Rancho La Merced Provisions, $42.
Know someone who loves sauerkraut or kimchi? Science geeks and hipster canners will appreciate the clever design of this kit. I received one of these kits as a gift from the maker, chef Ernest Miller, the man who helped relaunch Los Angeles County’s Master Food Preserver program in 2011. Although old-school canners may scoff at the idea of needing anything more than a Mason jar for lacto-fermentation, this kit helps reduce mold issues and produces more consistent results than old-school methods, especially for the inexperienced canner.
3. 2-gallon stoneware fermentation and pickling set from Kirby & Kraut, $136.
Old-school food preservationists with hipster design aesthetics will swoon over the fabric and artwork choices available to grace this 2-gallon crock with fabric top. As someone who currently uses a dishtowel to cover my crock, I’ll admit that this fermentation kit would be an upgrade to my current setup. I find the red/blue chevron top particularly charming.
4. Pectin jaune from La Cuisine, 8 ounces for $20.
Pectin is gelling substance used to help solidify jams and jellies. Commercially produced powdered pectin is usually made from apple seeds, but pectin jaune is a bit different. Made from the seeds of citrus fruit, pectin jaune will not liquefy after it sets as other pectin can. This unique property makes it the traditional choice for use in pâte de fruits (fruit paste), a delightful French confection that is vaguely similar to — but infinitely better than — those jelly fruit slices that are so popular around the holidays. I found pectin jaune at La Cuisine, an amazing cooking store in Alexandria, Va. Pectin jaune is often available in only large quantities, but this store packages it in 8-ounce bags suitable for small-batch experimentation.
5. Leifheit canning jars, available in various sizes ranging from 1 cup (1/4 liter) to 1 liter, price varies by size. Also available for purchase in six-packs.
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Leifheit canning jars use the two-piece lid system recommended by the National Center for Home Food Preservation, but they have a more unique shape than the classic Mason-style jar. Their diamond footprint allows these jars to fit neatly into the canner, which will appeal to organization nuts and those with a strong sense of spatial relationships. Perfect for the hipster canner on your gift list. Although the jars themselves are reusable, consider springing for a few extra sets of replacement lids and rings, which are safe only for one-time use.
It’s an extravagant gift, but an Excalibur dehydrator is a gift that keeps on giving, especially during the summer harvest season. I’ve been eying this nine-tray cherry red version with a 26-hour timer. There are other dehydrators on the market, but the Excalibur is my favorite because of its horizontal airflow system. When comparing dehydrators, look for an adjustable thermostat, large tray size, mesh screens with small hole size and a timer. Also, be sure to consider how many trays you think you’ll realistically need. I’ve filled up nine trays (15 square feet of drying space) with no problem, but your working style may be different. If you’re going to splurge on a gift of this magnitude, you might want to give the recipient a heads-up so she (or he) can weigh in on color choice and other important features.
But even if you splurge on a beloved fellow canner, also be sure to whip up a batch of apple butter or bake some gingerbread for your nearest and dearest. A homemade gift is often the best gift of all.
Main photo: J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Work’s finishing salt, pectin jaune and pâte de fruit top holiday gift lists for canners this year. Credit: Susan Lutz
by: Susan Lutz
My neighbors and I are savoring the last tomatoes of the season. I’m starting to prepare for winter — and holiday meals — but I haven’t given up on fall’s bounty. This year I plan to serve roasted tomato and corn salad as a side dish for our Thanksgiving meal.
Beside a healthy, happy family and good friends, there’s little I’m more thankful for than ripe tomatoes and sweet white corn. It seems there’s nothing more American than these two dishes. Food historians have found evidence of very few foods that were served at the first Thanksgiving, but one of those foods was almost certainly corn. The corn would have been served as a grain in bread or porridge, not as the corn on the cob we eat today.
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The reason this summer standard will be on my fall table is that I have white corn kernels packed in quart freezer bags stashed in my freezer. (I prefer white corn for its taste and texture, but I’ll admit that this may be a regional preference on my part. I know others who feel just as strongly about yellow corn.) I worked hard during August to ensure that I’d have sweet white corn awaiting me during the cold winter months for use in soups and side dishes like roasted tomato and corn salad. Even if blanching and freezing corn weren’t on your agenda this summer, you can enjoy this salad by using commercially frozen corn.
I can already hear the groans, so I will repeat: This salad is quite good using frozen corn. Freezing gets a bad rap. The naturally occurring sugars in sweet corn begin to turn to starch as soon as it’s picked. So to keep the corn sweeter, you must eat it or freeze it immediately. Commercially processed frozen vegetables, including corn, are processed just after picking, which yields a high quality product. When I run out of my own frozen corn, I buy frozen white sweet corn at Trader Joe’s. Although it’s not as good at the corn picked from my parents’ garden, it’s a solid substitute.
Pilgrims knew their tomatoes
The other summer favorite I intend to serve at Thanksgiving is tomatoes. Although tomatoes were not on the menu at the Thanksgiving meal shared by Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians at Plymouth Colony in 1621, these beautiful fruits are American in origin. In the fascinating book “The Tomato in America,” Andrew F. Smith claims the wild tomato (Lycopersicon) originated in the coastal highland of western South America. It was in Central America that Mayans and other Mesoamericans first domesticated the tomato plant and began to eat its sweet and mildly acidic fruit.
Tomatoes are traditionally thought of as summer fare, but even in November some of my neighbors have tomatoes hanging from shriveling vines in their backyards. Depending on where you live, you may, too. I am not so lucky in my garden, but I am still able to find tomatoes at my farmers market.
At this point in the season, I concentrate on small tomatoes — especially cherry tomato varieties. I let them ripen for a few days on my counter if they’re not yet in their prime and roast them to concentrate their flavor. You can even make this recipe using hothouse-grown cherry tomatoes if you’re so inclined.
The final ingredients are fresh basil leaves, which are also traditionally summer fare, but which come from the potted basil plant I keep in my kitchen and feta cheese.
With a little preparation, the gleanings of the final harvest, and a good freezer, you can let summer make its last stand on your Thanksgiving table.
Roasted Tomato and Corn Salad
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 60 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Yield: Salad proportions are written for 1 to 2 servings, but can be scaled up to serve as many as you need. The amount of roasted tomatoes will probably be far greater than you’ll want for a single meal, unless it’s Thanksgiving. Extra roasted tomatoes are delicious when mixed with hot pasta and topped with Parmesan cheese.
Note: This recipe offers amounts that are closer to a general concept than a hard and fast rule. Feel free to adjust amounts based on the number of tomatoes you have and the number of people you want to serve. The tomatoes may be roasted a day or two ahead of time, making it possible for a quick “warm and toss” side dish for your Thanksgiving meal.
48 small cherry or Roma tomatoes
2 tablespoons plus an additional 1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons fresh thyme, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 cup of frozen white corn, defrosted and drained of any excess liquid
5 basil leaves, julienned
2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
2. Slice tomatoes in half (lengthwise if using Romas) and squeeze them gently to remove seeds.
3. Place seeded tomatoes in a medium bowl with vinegar, olive oil, rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper, and gently toss to thoroughly coat tomatoes.
4. Cover the bottom of a half-sheet pan (a 12-by-18-inch sheet pan with 1-inch sides) with aluminum foil, parchment paper, or Silpat.
5. Arrange tomatoes in a single layer on the sheet pan, cut side up.
6. Roast for 40 minutes at 375 F, then turn heat up to 400 degrees F and roast for an additional 10 minutes or until tomatoes are lightly caramelized.
7. Cool slightly before continuing to make salad. Or cool completely and place in refrigerator for 1 to 2 days until you’re ready to make the salad. Be sure to keep the resulting “juice” created in the roasting process. You will need it for the salad.
8. Place roasted tomatoes with their juice, defrosted corn, and vinegar in a medium skillet and cook over medium heat until mixture is warm throughout.
9. Gently pour mixture into a shallow bowl and top with basil and crumbled feta. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Main photo: Roasted Tomato and Corn Salad makes an unexpected Thanksgiving side dish. Credit: Susan Lutz
Row after row of tomatoes fairly glowed from the wooden folding tables: pointy tipped Pittman Valley Plums, pale yellow Dr. Carolyns, globe-shaped Nepals and hearty Cherokee Purples. It was a rainbow-like assortment of 100 varieties that bore little resemblance to the bland, identical crimson globes in the supermarket aisle. The crowd was enthusiastic as it tasted, shared, argued and traded information, specimens and seeds.
I was at Monticello’s Harvest Festival at the tomato tables of The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, an organization at the forefront of the heritage seed movement. It’s been working with gardeners and seed savers for nearly 40 years to help preserve our garden and food heritage. And there’s possibly no better place to celebrate these goals than the home of Thomas Jefferson, America’s Founding Foodie.
Now in its eighth year, Monticello’s Harvest Festival was founded by Ira Wallace, one of the current owner/workers of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The festival, hosted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, is a mixing bowl for chefs, gardeners and seed savers from across the country. For Wallace, it’s a community-building experience. Wallace admits that working in the sustainable food world can be tough sometimes, but that the festival is a great reminder of why she does what she does.
“Some days you feel really lonely and now I’ve found my tribe,” she said.
That tribe is a fascinating one that places passionate amateur and international experts on equal footing. At Monticello, I witnessed amateur seed savers discuss their process with internationally recognized authors. I came home with a vinegar mother — a starter for homemade vinegar — from one of America’s top winemakers.
Seed Exchange impact
For Wallace, that’s the point.
“This is for the people,” she said of the festival, “it’s not a scientific thing.” In fact, the location at Monticello only seems to highlight the ideals of Jefferson, who saw America’s future as a land of independent farmers. You may have only a suburban backyard or an urban window garden, but Wallace pointed out: “We want people to know that you don’t have to have a hybrid plant to have a good garden. Having some of your own seed gives people independence.”
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Craig LeHullier is a great example of the impact of the Seed Exchange. A cheerful man with a graying beard, LeHullier is the father of the tomato variety called Cherokee Purple. In 1990, the Raleigh, N.C., native received an envelope of tomato seeds from a friend in Tennessee, with a note saying this was a single variety grown by a family in Tennessee for more than a century. They thought the tomatoes were originally grown by the Cherokee Indians before that. LeHullier planted the seeds and discovered an ugly purple monster that turned out to be one of the most delicious tomatoes he’d ever tasted.
LeHullier donated his seeds to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and was given the honor of naming the variety. The Cherokee Purple has gone on to become a favorite across the United States. This is the seed-saving tribe at work: salvaging a nearly lost varietal before it disappears. As LeHullier said: “You gotta give it away so it never goes away.”
This is the essence of the Monticello Harvest Festival — and the thousands of festivals and seed swaps like it across the country. I witnessed Aaron Keefer, the culinary gardener at California’s French Laundry restaurant, in a passionate discussion about heirloom rice with Glenn Roberts. Roberts is the founder of Anson Mills, a South Carolina champion of traditional American grains and milling techniques.
Heirloom rice species are beginning to catch the attention of high-end sustainable restaurants. Roberts said there are important reasons to maintain grain diversity — and you can find it in Jefferson’s era.
Jefferson had been badgering the local farmers for decades, insisting that they expand their rice-planting beyond a single variety. In 1827, South Carolina rice farmers faced a blight — destroying nearly the entire rice crop of the young nation. Fortunately, smaller farmers had saved seeds from other rice species and Carolina rice culture endured. “Diversity was the answer to success,” Roberts said. “At the time, rice farmers failed to listen and suffered the consequences.”
There was a deep knowledge base at the festival, and endless passion for a variety of food-related topics. The excitement of the speakers as they met and interacted was infectious. Here the teachers and students exchanged roles in the blink of an eye. Festival speakers wandered through vendor stalls and attended the lectures of other speakers. Anyone with a handful of seeds was an expert — at least at growing that single plant.
My mouth watered when I bit into a juicy purple globe at the overflowing tomato table — a variety grown by Jefferson himself. Wallace sent me home with a packet of Prudens Purple seeds to grow my own. I was equally excited by the fat Cherokee Purple handed to me by LeHullier.
Back at home I shared it with my husband and saved the seeds in a small envelope. Wallace’s vision of independent gardeners has deep roots — and it’s working.
“The focus is sustainability and bringing new plants to American culture,” she said. “That’s what Jefferson did.”
Main photo: Ground zero for heritage seed savers: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Credit: Susan Lutz