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Terra Brockman


Henry's Farm, Illinois

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The Seasons on Henry's Farm


Terra Brockman is an author and speaker on a variety of food and farm topics. She has written extensively on food and agriculture, especially as it affects the environment. A member of a remarkable farming family, Terra is a nuanced observer of, fierce advocate for, and gifted writer and speaker about sustainable agriculture. She comes at her subject from unexpected angles, combining her experience growing up as one of the 4th generation of an Illinois farm family with expertise in biology, ecology, literature, philosophy and history.

Brockman’s most recent book, The Seasons on Henry’s Farm, was a finalist for the 2010 James Beard Award in writing/literature. The book takes the reader through the many “micro-seasons” on Terra’s brother Henry’s extremely diverse (655 varieties at last count) vegetable farm in central Illinois. Excerpts from the book have appeared in Orion Magazine (“Corn Porn,” August/Sept., 2009), and The Wildbranch Anthology (“Bean by Bean,” Univ. of Utah Press, 2010).

Brockman is also the founder of The Land Connection, an educational nonprofit she started when the disconnect between good land use, good meals, and good health became so dire that the situation demanded action on the ground. Today, The Land Connection is furthering the organization’s mission of preserving farmland, training new farmers, and empowering consumers.

Through her writing, speaking, and advocacy work, Brockman continues to work for healthy farmland, healthy foods, and healthy communities by elucidating the food chain that links the American eater to the American land. Her website is www.terrabrockman.com.

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Using Old Potatoes? Don’t Misjudge The Sprouts. Image

I know spring has sprung when the hens start churning out eggs, and when the root vegetables from last fall start to sprout. And I know that now is the perfect time to use those new eggs and old potatoes in a classic Spanish tortilla, or tortilla Española.

Before getting to this workhorse of Spanish cuisine, which according to Penelope Casas in her classic “The Foods and Wines of Spain,” “can be eaten at any time of the day or night, and transcends any conventional meal categories,” let’s visit the hens and potatoes.

Even while snow covered the ground in mid-March, the eggs started rolling in because bird brains and bodies respond not to temperature, but to day length. And when there are more than 12 hours of light, the hens kick into high gear. This makes sense when you consider that the best time to bring a baby chick into the world is when it’s a hospitable place with a smorgasbord of tender vegetation, worms and insects.

Potatoes don’t have brains (although they do have eyes), but nature has nevertheless made them wise, and they respond to both temperature and light. As long as it is dark and cool, they stay in a state of suspended animation. But introduce some light and heat, as I do when I periodically move potatoes from the root cellar into the kitchen cabinet, and before you know it, you have sprouts. Depending on the variety of potato, the sunward-yearning sprouts, with a burst of proto-roots at their base, can be white, pink or lovely lavender.

Don’t worry about those sprouts

Of course, “lovely” and “sprout” don’t usually go together when people talk about potatoes. If you buy non-organic potatoes, it’s probably been decades since you’ve had one sprout on you. Many people think a sprouted potato is one that has gone bad.

But what’s really bad is that the vast majority of potatoes in our food chain are sprayed with chemicals — usually chlorpropham or maleic hydrazide, under brand names such as Bud Nip or Taterpex. These plant growth regulators inhibit cell division so the treated potatoes won’t send up sprouts for up to a year after harvest. This is just the way growers, shippers and grocery stores want them.

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A potato beginning to sprout. Credit: Terra Brockman

But it may not be the way you want them. Many consumers prefer organic produce to food that has been treated with pesticides, synthetic fertilizer and other chemicals. While there are valid food preservation and economic incentives to use chemicals to prevent sprouting, it also makes sense to try to lighten our toxic load at every opportunity.

Many European Union countries have banned at least one of the common plant growth inhibitors, maleic hydrazide. Meanwhile, in the U.S., we hear little or nothing about sprout-inhibiting chemicals, and go happily on our way, believing that an un-sprouted potato is fresh and perfect, while the sprouted one is old and possibly dangerous.

It is true that the green-tinged potatoes, and in particular their sprouts, contain naturally-occurring glycoalkaloids, which are toxic at high concentrations. But once you pare away any green spots, and snap off any sprouts, you’ve got a perfectly good potato, ready to be married with some new eggs in a Spanish tortilla.

Simple ingredients combine for a spring Spanish tortilla

Penelope Casas writes that “A Spanish tortilla has nothing in common with its Mexican counterpart except its Latin root — torte, meaning a round cake.” There are fancier recipes to be found, but this five-ingredient version, adapted from Casas, is the truest and best I know. So get some fresh eggs and scoop those sprouting potatoes out of your cabinet. It’s springtime and that’s tortilla time.

Tortilla Espanola

Serves 4 as a main course, or 8 as an appetizer


¼ cup olive oil (or more to keep potatoes from sticking together)

4 or 5 waxy potatoes such as Yukon Gold (about 1½ pounds) sliced into ¼-inch rounds

1 medium Spanish onion, ¼-inch dice

Salt to taste

5 large eggs


1. In a deep 9-inch skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the potato slices one at a time and alternate layers of potato and onion, salting the layers generously. Cook slowly over medium-heat, lifting and turning now and then. You don’t want the potatoes or onions to brown, just to soften nicely. The potatoes should be tender, but not breaking apart or sticking together.

2. While the potatoes are cooking (15 to 20 minutes), lightly beat the eggs with a generous pinch of salt, and set aside. When the potato-onion mixture is cooked, gently drain in a colander set over a bowl, saving the oil for later.

3. Put the potato-onion mixture into a bowl, and let cool about 5 minutes. Then pour the beaten eggs over the mixture, and let it sit anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours. This step helps marry the flavors.

4. In a 10-inch non-stick pan, heat about a tablespoon of the reserved oil. Dump the egg-potato-onion mixture into the pan, as if it were a thick omelet. Cook about halfway through, until the bottom is golden brown. Most of the egg on the top should be almost but not quite set.

5. Using a large inverted plate set on top of the pan, carefully flip the omelet onto the plate.

6. Add another half tablespoon of the reserved olive oil to the pan, and carefully slide the tortilla back into the pan, to finish cooking, which will take only a minute or two. Slide onto a plate, and serve hot or at room temperature.

Top photo: Tortilla Espanola. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Who Knew Radishes Could Be Black, And Soothe A Cold? Image

A few years back, a woman called, begging to come out to my brother’s farm and buy 10 pounds of black radishes. We often get people asking for extra melons, or tomatoes, or even spinach, but someone desperate for black radishes, and a whole bag of them, was a new one. While the roseheart radishes sell themselves once we cut them open to reveal their bright ballgown-fuschia flesh, the sooty black orbs tend to languish like Cinderella in the ashes.

When I asked the woman why she needed them so urgently, she explained that her son had a bad cold with a sore throat and cough, and she knew from prior experience that the best remedy was black radishes. This, too, bore further investigation, so when I met her and handed over the coal-black radishes, I asked what she was going to do with them.

Honey and black radish cold remedy

She described how she would slice off the top and tail, place the radish root side down on the counter and use a small paring knife to hollow out a depression large enough to hold a tablespoon or more of honey. Once that hollowed out spot was filled with honey, she placed the radish in a glass so that the roundest part fit snugly and held it suspended.

“Let it stand overnight, and in the morning, there will be honey-sweetened radish juice in the glass. Drink it and you will feel better!”

Black radish-and-honey cure for a cold. Credit: Terra Brockman

Black radish-and-honey soothes a cold. Credit: Terra Brockman

She mentioned that another way to make the same cold remedy in larger amounts was to cut the black radish into small cubes, put the cubes in a jar, and cover them with honey. Let it sit a day or two, and then take a tablespoon of the honey-radish mixture as needed for your cold or cough.

Of course this sounded like an old wives’ tale. But old wives’ tales exist, and persist, because they have at least a grain of truth, and often much more. A bit of research showed that one black radish has more than the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C, about 25% of the RDA for potassium, plus good amounts of magnesium, iron, sulfur and other nutrients. So the next time I found myself coming down with a cold, I prepared the black radish and honey concoction, and am happy to report that I am a believer.

Black radishes in ancient medicine

It turns out that the black radish (Raphanus sativus varieta niger L.) has a long history of medicinal uses. In ancient Egypt, it was considered sacred and used together with garlic to create a one-two punch to knock out just about any bad bug. In Ayurvedic healing practices, radishes are said to have cleansing effects, helping break down and eliminate toxins and cancer-promoting free radicals. Black radishes have been used as a remedy for respiratory problems in Asia for thousands of years, and in Europe for hundreds of years.

But black radishes are not just medicinal. Along with other winter radishes, they are quick and easy to prepare, and make for a light and lively, guilt-free side dish. Here are just a few ideas for starters.


  • Put a slice of radish on a bagel, with or without cream cheese.
  • Shred them with apples, pears, carrots and/or fennel, and then sprinkle with herbs, or nestle in arugula for a refreshing salad.
  • Make a topping by grating the radish, adding finely chopped onion, salt, pepper and olive oil. Mix well and let sit for about an hour for the flavors to meld. Serve on crackers or toast.
  • Grate the radish into scrambled eggs.


  • Chunk up the radishes and braise in a crockpot with a roast or stew meat.
  • Slice thinly, toss with oil and salt, and bake on a cookie sheet until crispy.
  • Chunk up, toss with oil, salt and herbs, and roast with other root vegetables.
  • Cut into matchsticks, and add to a stir-fry.

With their high water content, winter radishes are also a dieter’s delight, with only about 20 calories per cup. But in that serving is plenty of fiber, vitamin C, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc to nourish your body and hydrate your skin.

And all that health and nutrition come in beautiful packages, from basic black, to classic white (daikon), to bright green (greenheart), to lovely lavender (Korean purple), to brilliant fuschia (roseheart, beauty heart or watermelon radish).

If you can’t find these radishes at your regular grocery store, try an Asian grocery, or a winter farmers market. When you do find them, you might as well get a big bag full, because in sickness or in health, you’ll find winter radishes to be versatile, nutritious and delicious.

Top photo: Black radish. Credit: Terra Brockman

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The Family Secrets To Honey-Dipped Holiday Treats Image

“Knead until it’s smooth and shiny,” my mother told me, just as her mother had told her, as we made the egg pasta dough for the traditional fried dough dipped in honey treats my grandmother brought as a spoken recipe when she emigrated from southern Italy to the south side of Chicago as a teenager.

“Smooth and shiny” echoes in my head as I make these Christmas treats with my teenage nieces. They never heard the voice of their Italian great-grandmother, Saveria Castiglia, never saw her twinkling blue eyes or felt her heavy tread on the steep stairs to her apartment. But they know exactly what she made for Christmas every year, and how she made it. Their hands roll out the dough just as she did, forming the circles and braids of cosi boni and the little pillows of cassateddi filled with nuts and raisins.

As I watch my nieces shape the dough, I see myself and all my brothers and sisters gathered around another kitchen table many years ago, rolling the dough, making the shapes, watching as Mom carefully slipped them into the bubbling oil, then later dipped each one in hot honey, before we ate one after another and licked our fingers.

And every Christmas we gather to make cosi boni and cassateddi again, and make new memories, which will become old memories, that will in time be passed down and become new again. And it occurs to me that traditional family recipes live forever as if inside an infinite set of matryoshka dolls.

Fried dough recipe makes it to paper

I’ve heard people say that if God had intended us to follow recipes, he wouldn’t have given us grandmothers. I would add that God gave us grandmothers to give recipes eternal life.

The recipes below were spoken recipes for many centuries before my mother had her mother write them down. As I searched for similar recipes online, I found infinite variations of fried dough dipped in honey or sugar, and various cassateddi or cassatelle recipes filled with chickpeas and cocoa, or ricotta and chocolate, but none using as simple a dough or a filling as my grandmother’s.

This is undoubtedly because my grandmother came from a very poor family in a very poor village. Once she left, she never went back. But the dialect (cosi boni, not the proper cose buone) and the recipe survived the hard life of an immigrant, and has now survived another three generations. Poor as she was, she created a rich tradition, a living family heirloom.

So whatever your family holiday recipes are, gather round the kitchen table and pass them on!

Cosi Boni (in Grandma’s dialect) or Cose Buone (in standard Italian)

Makes about 2 dozen pieces


Vegetable oil, enough to fill the pan at least 1 inch deep

6 eggs

2 to 3 cups flour, enough so the dough won’t be too sticky

Honey, enough to fill a small pan to about an inch deep


1. Heat the oil to 370 F.

2. Break the eggs into a large mixing bowl and beat lightly with a fork.

3. Slowly add the flour until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl.

4. Knead the dough lightly until it’s smooth and shiny.

5. Pinch off small pieces and roll into ¼-inch thick ropes. Form into simple circles, braids, crosses, pretzel shapes, etc.

6. Gently drop the dough pieces, one at a time, into the oil. Fry in batches, and don’t crowd the pan. The dough will drop to the bottom, and then float to the surface. Turn so both sides are golden brown. Remove to a towel-lined plate.

7. When all the cosi boni have been fried, heat the honey just to a simmer in a wide, low-sided pan. Turn off the heat, and use a fork or tongs to coat each piece. Place in a mound on a serving platter.


Makes about 2 dozen pieces


For the filling:

1 pound raisins

½ pound walnuts

1 or 2 teaspoons grated orange peel

1 to 2 teaspoons allspice, or to taste

½ to 1 cup honey, warmed (use enough to have the filling just barely stick together)

For the dough:

3 or 4 eggs

3-4 teaspoons of water

3-4 teaspoons of oil

About 3 cups flour

Honey, enough to fill a small pan to about 1 inch

Vegetable oil, enough to fill the pan at least one inch deep


1. To make the filling, put the raisins and walnuts into a food processor, or chop roughly with a knife.

2. Add the orange peel, allspice and ½ cup honey to the raisin and nut mixture and stir to blend. The filling should barely hold together when you pick up a small ball of it. If it doesn’t, add a little more honey, but don’t overdo it. You don’t want the filling oozing out of the little pillows when you fry them.

3. To make the dough, beat the eggs lightly with a fork in a large bowl. Add the water and oil and beat lightly to combine.

4. Slowly add the flour, about ½ cup at a time, until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth. If it’s sticky, add more flour.

5. Roll the dough into a thin sheet. If it shrinks back as you roll it, let it rest for 15-20 minutes, then roll out again.

6. Heat the oil to 370 F.

7. Cut into circles or squares, put about a teaspoon of filling in the center of each, and fold the dough over the filling, using fork tines to seal the two edges of dough.

8. Gently drop the pillows, one at a time, into very hot oil being careful not to crowd the pan. Turn so both sides are golden brown. Remove to a towel-lined plate.

9. After they cool, or the next day, heat a pan full of honey and use a fork to dip the fried dough in the hot honey. Pile high on a serving platter.

Top photo: Fried dough from Grandma’s recipe. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Gelato Runs From Spigots At Chicago’s New Eataly Image

As befits the City of the Big Shoulders, the Chicago outpost of the food emporium Eataly, which opened last week, is the largest to date, with two floors totaling 63,000 square feet and containing some 10,000 products, 23 eateries, 21 retail areas devoted to specific products, two espresso bars, two wine bars, a Nutella bar and a fine-dining restaurant.

While Eataly is a huge space with an immense number of offerings, it’s quite the opposite of the alienating experience of mega-grocery stores. Instead of dutifully pushing a cart up and down sterile, fluorescent-lighted aisles, getting your nameless, faceless (and often tasteless) boxed and canned goods, you pleasantly wander past floor-to-ceiling windows and in and out of a maze of small eateries and counters. Each counter is dedicated to a specific item: vegetables, meats, cheeses, fish, olive oil, beer, wine and much more.

Bringing an Old World market experience to modern urban shopping

About halfway through my meander, it occurred to me that Eataly is the perfect marriage of old and new. It’s a place where the Old World 10-stop shopping experience (going to the fishmonger, the sausage maker, the cheese shop, the baker, and a half dozen other small shops), meets the convenience of the New World one-stop shopping experience.

And whether you stop at one, or at every single one, of the shops within Eataly, you will get high-end products from freshly made pasta to pristine produce, from bread to beer, chevre to chopping blocks, and books to Barolo.

And there are plenty of eating and drinking opportunities to indulge in while you shop. You can stop at the pizza corner for a true Neapolitan pizza, the fritto stand for fried foods, the rosticceria for roasted meats or the panini shop for a sandwich. For drinks, there’s a beer hall and two cafes, one upstairs and one down. Wines are served in the central piazza area, which is crowned with a Hemingway quote: “Wine is the most civilized thing in the world.”

In fact, the Eataly Chicago is dedicated to Ernest Hemingway. This may seem incongruous, but Eataly’s founder, industrialist Oscar Farinetti, a great fan of Hemingway’s work, explains that the author was born and raised in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and spent significant parts of his life in Italy. That he was also a man of large appetites is just icing on the cake.

I’ve been making pilgrimages to Eataly ever since the first one opened in 2007 in an old vermouth warehouse in the Lingotto district of Turin, at the far end of the Fiat factory. Farinetti’s brainchild is a paean to food that is “good, clean and fair.” These are the watchwords of Farinetti’s friend, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, who champions food that is delicious and untainted by chemicals. He also is devoted to  treating  farmers and food workers fairly. Farinetti and Petrini want shoppers to stop being passive consumers and instead become active “co-producers” by learning who produced what food, and how, and why that’s important.

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The pizza oven at Eataly, Chicago. Credit: Terra Brockman

In fact, one tenet of the Eataly Manifesto is “Eat. Shop. Learn.” Another tenet explains: “We feel that it’s not just important that we know everything about what we sell and serve, but that you also learn about the products we are so passionate about. We share with you the stories of the people and places behind all that we offer. The more you know the more you enjoy.”

Local sourcing and fresh produce at Eataly Chicago

In keeping with the precepts of Slow Food, Eataly Chicago has paid special attention to local sourcing. There is a whole section of canned and bottled goods made by Chicagoan Lee Greene’s Scrumptious Pantry, a selection of West Loop Salumi’s cured meats, pork from Bensmiller’s Farm in Iowa, Piedmontese beef from Toro Ranch in Nebraska and many more products from other Midwestern producers.

Among the can’t-miss features at Chicago’s Eataly is the vegetable butcher. As soon as you walk in the doors, you are greeted by a beautiful farmstand-like display of seasonal fruits and vegetables. You can then take your selections to the vegetable butcher, who will trim your artichokes, peel your carrots, shred your cabbage or do whatever you need for ease of cooking once you get it home.

The store’s Gelateria Alpina gelato bar offers favorites such as nocciola (hazelnut) and cioccolata (chocolate), as well as seasonal offerings. In addition to hand-scooped gelato, and unique to the Chicago store, are soft-serve gelato spigots!

As Federico Fellini says in a quote gracing a wall in Chicago’s Eataly, “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” His words could just as well be applied to Eataly Chicago, that is, if you consider “pasta” a metonym for all great food. And great food makes us better. As Sophia Loren is quoted, in yet another Eataly sign, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”

Top photo: Pasta for sale at Eataly’s newest location in Chicago. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Why Heirloom Cornmeal Is Best For Holiday Polenta Image

Corn has gotten a bad rap over the past 50 years, especially since it was genetically modified to resist enormous applications of herbicide, and then used primarily for ethanol and animal feed. That No. 2 Yellow Dent corn is a far cry from the delicious and nutritious staple of the Native Americans, who deserve to own the intellectual property of corn genetics for the simple reason that all corn is Indian corn, painstakingly developed by Native Americans from wild teosinte grass.

Cultivation of maize began more than 8,000 years ago in the Balsas River Valley in what is present-day Mexico, and the plant was considered a sacred gift from the gods. Over the years, thousands of varieties were developed by native peoples throughout Meso-America, and then throughout North and South America, until there were varieties for every altitude and climate, and for every culinary and ceremonial purpose. The Indians categorized their corn by intended use: for flour, for hominy and porridge, for popping, and so on. Of the many edible gifts native peoples have given us, the most important is, arguably, corn.

This Thanksgiving, you can give thanks to Native Americans and recapture some of the rich heritage and rich tastes of corn by seeking out heirloom varieties such as Mandan Bride, and serving them as a side dish or as a gluten-free stuffing for your bird.

Polenta revelation

My first experience with true polenta was not in Italy, but in my own kitchen using my brother Henry’s freshly ground Mandan Bride cornmeal, water, salt and pepper. Until that silky, creamy, revelatory moment, I thought all cornmeal came in a yellow and blue canister blessed with a smiling Quaker. And I thought it tasted pretty much like the cardboard it came in.

The steaming bowl in front of me was something else entirely — complex, nutty, mildly sweet and altogether comforting. And it got me wondering who and what Mandan Bride was, and why I had lived for 50 years before tasting the earthy essence of corn.

It turns out the Mandan Indians lived in parts of what we now know as Minnesota and North Dakota, and they developed this corn specifically for grinding into meal and making into porridge. They bred it for flavor and nutrition, and quite possibly for beauty as well.

Every ear of Mandan Bride is different, the variegated colors ranging from deep burgundy to hazy purple to smoky white, with some kernels a uniform color and others striped. The ears are so beautiful that you may find it being sold as an ornamental. But after enjoying its beauty, you should do as the Indians intended, and make yourself the most amazing polenta you’ve ever had.

Searching for Mandan Bride

Mandan Bride and other heirloom cornmeals are hard to find from anyone but a small-scale, biodiverse local farmer. The plant’s relatively weak stalks and soft cobs make it nearly impossible to harvest mechanically, so farmers must pick the ears by hand, then hand shuck them, dry them to just the right point and then stone grind them in small batches. Because the whole kernel is ground, heirloom cornmeal is much more flavorful and nutritious than commercial cornmeal for which the outer hulls and inner germ (the protein- and fat-rich center of each kernel) are removed. But freshly ground whole kernels are perishable, and should be kept in the refrigerator or freezer.

If you can’t find Mandan Bride, look for Hopi Blue or Bloody Butcher. Or resolve to grow your own next year. Seeds are available from a number of purveyors who specialize in old varieties, and Mandan Bride is listed as one of RAFT’s (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) “culinary mainstays of the last three millennia.”

Perfect Thanksgiving polenta

Many polenta recipes call for butter, cream or cheese, but if you have freshly ground heirloom cornmeal, there’s no need for anything but water, salt and pepper.

Polenta can be made and served at a loose, custardy consistency using a 5-1 ratio of water to cornmeal, or it can be made with less water (a 4-1 ratio) so that it’s firm and easily shaped into squares or triangles, and then pan-fried or broiled, giving you great crunch on the outside and creaminess on the inside. Either way, polenta pairs perfectly with bold autumn greens like Brussels sprouts or broccoli rabe.

For a less stressful Thanksgiving meal, make this polenta a day or two ahead of time, then broil it just before serving.

Broiled Polenta With Heirloom Cornmeal

Serves 6


4 cups water

1 cup Mandan Bride or other heirloom cornmeal (if unavailable, get the best organic cornmeal you can find)

1 teaspoon sea salt

Freshly ground pepper

Olive oil


1. Bring salted water to a boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Turn the heat down to medium, and add the cornmeal gradually in a steady stream, whisking constantly until it’s all incorporated.

2. Turn the heat to low and continue whisking for about 5 minutes to prevent any lumps from forming.

3. Continue stirring often for the next 15 minutes or until the water is absorbed. Reduce heat to low and continue stirring until polenta turns creamy and pulls away from the sides of the pot. Taste and add sea salt and freshly  ground pepper if desired.

4. Generously coat a 13-by-9-inch baking pan with olive oil. Pour the polenta into the pan and let cool. Cover and refrigerate.

5. Take out an hour or so before you plan to serve it to let it come to room temperature. Set your broiler on high and grease a rimmed cookie sheet.

6. Slice the firm polenta into diamonds, wedges, or squares — or use your favorite cookie cutter. Place polenta slices on the baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place on the top rack of the oven and broil for 8 to 10 minutes, or until polenta is crisp and brown on top.

Top photo: Mandan Bride corn. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Chocolate’s Long Journey From Cacao to Candy Image

Nothing says “I love you” like a box of chocolates. And what’s not to like about a sweet, sensual, mood enhancer that also has antioxidants, lowers blood pressure, inhibits “bad” cholesterol, and is chock full of antioxidants and polyphenols. No wonder the scientific name of the plant that chocolate comes from, Theobromo Cacao, translates as “food of the gods cacao.”

What about that plant, though? Even though I’m a lifelong chocoholic, I’d never given much thought to the small tree that is the source of all chocolate. That sin of omission was remedied on my recent first trip to Hawaii, the only place in the United States where cacao trees grow.

There, I saw the slender tree that thrives under the shade of the tropical forest canopy, admired its brightly colored cacao pods and popped raw beans from that pod, still encased in their softly glowing slick white coating, right into my mouth. And I learned that the chocolate bar or truffle you offer your loved one (or indulge in yourself) is the end result of a long, arduous, delicate process involving many steps and many hands.

Cacao’s difficult cultivation

Cacao is not an easy tree to cultivate. It grows only in the relatively narrow band 20 degrees north or south of the equator, and in that zone, it must be planted next to taller trees whose canopy protects it from direct sun and high winds. After trees are planted, they take five or six years to start producing, and mature trees bear only about 30 usable pods per year. With between 30 to 50 beans in an average pod, a single tree produces about 1,000 beans, enough to make only about 2 pounds of bittersweet chocolate.

The cacao tree is also susceptible to pests and diseases, which many producers seek to counteract by spraying chemical pesticides. In fact, cacao is one of the most heavily sprayed crops, and the chemicals are toxic not only for the intended pests, but also for other insects, birds, animals, plants and workers. When you seek out chocolate from organic cacao growers, you are supporting farmers who work to enhance biodiversity and protect the ecosystem, including  the soil, air and water we all depend upon.

It was at the family owned and operated Ono Organic Farms, on the southeastern slope of the Haleakala volcano on Maui, that I witnessed the vegetal source of chocolate. Having never seen a cacao tree, I imagined the pods would be small and would hang from the ends of branches like “normal” fruit. Instead I saw a slender tree with improbably large pods emerging directly from the trunk. Large and pendulous, it seemed as if a gentle touch would send them tumbling earthward. The pods were the size and shape of a rugby ball and Crayola bright. Depending on the subspecies of the tree, and the ripeness of the pod, the color ranges from green through yellow, orange, red, purple and burgundy.

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A sweet, white film covers the cacao beans nestled in their pod and jump-starts fermentation, the first step in the chocolate-making process. Credit: Terra Brockman

Chuck Boerner, the proprietor of Ono Organic Farms, pried a few cacao beans from a freshly opened pod and handed them to us. He instructed us to suck the thin, sticky flesh from the dark beans. That sweet, lightly acidic flesh is what kicks off the fermentation process, and although it’s not physically part of the end product, it’s where chocolate flavors begin.

Ono Organic Farms, and in fact Hawaii as a whole, have relatively few cacao trees, so we did not see the larger scale production that takes place in Africa, which produces 75% of the world’s chocolate. But regardless of the location or scale, the steps from cacao bean to chocolate bar are the same, and involve a lot of workers doing a lot of hand labor.

Because the cacao pods ripen at varying times, they must be harvested individually with machetes or knives, taking care not to damage nearby pods or buds. Workers cut the pods open, generally with a machete, and then scoop the beans out. The raw, pulp-covered beans are then placed in shallow wooden boxes, or put in piles and covered with banana leaves.

The sweet white coating on the beans gets fermentation going, as the sugar in the pulp is converted into acids that change the chemical composition of the beans. The fermentation process takes from two to eight days, and generates temperatures up to 125 F, activating enzymes that begin to create chocolate’s flavor profile.

To stop fermentation, the beans are uncovered and laid out to dry in the sun, where they stay until nearly all of their moisture has evaporated. Then they are roasted, and the dry husks are removed. This is the point at which beans are generally shipped to chocolate factories around the world to be made into chocolate hearts and bon bons and bars of all descriptions.

A journey to Fair Trade

Because so many human hands are needed to pick and process cacao, child labor is used in many places around the world resulting in mass-produced chocolate with a “dark side,” according to the 2012 CNN report on “Chocolate’s Child Slaves” and also according to John Robbins, author of “No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution.” This makes it important to look for Fair Trade labels on your chocolate, just as many people do for their coffee.

After experiencing the beauty of the cacao tree, and learning about the process that starts with the bright fruit of a tropical tree I found myself enjoying the dark tasty treat of chocolate even more. And I realized that the organic and Fair Trade labels are as important on chocolate as they are on kale and coffee, and are another way to do good while eating well, and perhaps impressing your valentine as well.

Look for the Fair Trade and organic labels to do your part to create a better world and enjoy a guilt-free treat.

Where to find cacao and chocolate in Hawaii (not a definitive listing):

  • On Maui, the exotic fruit tour at Ono Organic Farms includes cacao, but they do not process it into chocolate. Bob Dye runs Waimea Chocolate Company on Maui, which uses 100% Hawaiian cacao, with their products available at Sweet Paradise Chocolatier in Wailea and at Wailea Wine.

Pods containing 40-60 cacao beans each hang from a tree in the McBryde Garden, part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden in the Lawa’i Valley on the south shore of Kauai Island in Hawaii. Credit: Terra Brockman

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