Articles in Organic

Caramelized onions make any burger better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

At a time of year when most people are fixated on berries and peaches, corn and tomatoes, it’s also the season to get excited about onions — not just any old allium but a heritage sweet onion harvested by hand in Walla Walla, Washington.

Walla Walla Sweets are the unheralded heirloom stars of summertime. Juicy, mild and sweet, they are at their best in all of the great (and easy) meals of the season: grilled with sausages, caramelized for burgers, sliced raw for salads and more.

Fresh and delicate in terms of both flavor and handling, Walla Walla Sweets are in season right now — and with a very limited supply from a handful of family growers, they won’t last long.

Older than Vidalias

Long before Walla Walla became renowned as an American Viticultural Area, this valley in southeastern Washington was the agricultural hub for a surprisingly sweet onion brought to the region from Corsica by a French soldier named Pete Pieri. According to all accounts, Pieri immigrated to Walla Walla with the seed in the late 19th century and began cultivating it commercially in 1900.

Grower Michael Locati’s great-grandfather, Joe, worked for Pieri for four years before going out on his own in 1909. He joined other Italian immigrant families, mainly from Milan and Calabria, who settled in this valley to become small-scale produce farmers, cultivating a seasonal onion now known as the Walla Walla Sweet.

Four generations later, Michael — along with his father and uncle — grows these heirlooms on 60 acres of Locati Farms and co-owns a packing and shipping arm called Walla Walla River Packing Co. Despite these modernizations, this is the same specialty onion, hand-selected by the family for over a century.

That’s a fair bit longer than that other famous sweet onion, Vidalia, a hybrid cultivated in Georgia since the 1930s. The Walla Walla “still has that heirloom genome,” said Locati.

Onion botany

A field worker harvesting onions by hand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee

A field worker harvesting onions by hand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee

It’s natural to think that sugar content is what makes Walla Walla Sweets exceptional. Not so. Their mildness has to do with the fact that they contain about half the amount of pyruvic acid that gives yellow storage onions their bite and makes you cry.

“This geographical area is very low in natural sulfur,” Locati said. The sulfur content in the soil is a catalyst to the production of pyruvic acid, he explained. “So these naturally low sulfur soils allow for these onions to be really sweet.”

Walla Walla Sweets are planted in early fall. They overwinter in snow-covered fields, then sprout and additional onion starts are transplanted in the spring. By mid-June, harvest has begun and continues through late August.

“Onions are ready when the leaves start laying down,” said Dan McClure, who began growing organic Walla Walla Sweets in 2007 with his wife Sarah. The couple currently raises over 800 tons on 27 acres at Walla Walla Organics and plans to scale up production, although the labor is even more arduous than many other crops.

Why’s that?

“No mechanical process yet exists that won’t damage them,”  McClure said. Nearly as large as softballs and weighing up to two pounds, these globular onions are delicate, with thin skins and a high water content that make them prone to bruising.

So workers harvest them entirely by hand. Carefully packed into boxes, the onions are then cured just until the necks dry out and the outer layer of turns amber. Still, they have a short shelf life — a couple of weeks at most, according to McClure.

Endangered onions?

For a community once famous for this varietal, it’s a big blow that acreage has dropped within the past five or so years from 1,000 acres to about 500, according to Kathryn Fry-Trommald, executive director of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee.

Compared to Vidalia’s 15,000 acres, this onion market is small potatoes. Urban sprawl (“there’s a Wal-mart now where there were onion fields,” said Fry-Trommald), consolidation in agriculture and labor pressures are all factors, as is the fact that many of those “old Italian families” are no longer in farming.

Another major threat is the competition from hybrid sweet onions — some mechanically harvested and higher in pyruvic acid — grown from Arizona to Texas. These are available year-round at much lower prices than Walla Walla Sweets.

In 1995, after discovering that other Washington-grown onions were being sold as counterfeit Walla Walla Sweets, the growers obtained a federal marketing order to protect this specialty onion, in the same way that heritage foods from Italy must be certified as locally grown and packaged.

For farmers like Locati and McClure, it’s hard to earn a living with a seasonal, fresh market onion. But they say the process of hand selection and hand harvesting is worth it for the allium’s singular qualities. There’s no sharp bite, and it has a complex flavor all its own marked by a startling sweetness.

While you don’t have to try Michael Locati’s method of tasting them raw in the field, this is a true “slicer” for using raw in salads and salsas or on burgers and sandwiches. You can grill, roast, sauté, or caramelize Walla Walla Sweets, too — just don’t wait.

Ways to cook and use sweet onions

Onions caramelizing in the pan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

Onions caramelizing in the pan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

Grill: Use a grill basket to cook large sliced or chopped onions on a hot grill until nicely charred. Toss and continue grilling until softened and translucent. Alternatively, grill thick onion slices on a well-scraped grill grate until grill marks appear; flip and cook the other side until soft and translucent. Toss onions with sliced and grilled zucchini, portabello mushrooms and red peppers seasoned with salt and pepper, a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a side dish with grilled steaks, chicken, pork chops or fish.

Roast: Place trimmed and peeled whole onions into a greased roasting pan. Rub well with olive oil and season with salt, pepper and fresh thyme. Roast at 425 F until brown and fork tender, about 1 hour, and serve with roast pork or beef.

Sauté: Slice peeled onions thinly. Heat a sauté pan over high heat with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onions and season with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until they soften and begin to brown. Add 1 bunch fresh, washed spinach or chard, another pinch of salt and ground pepper. Cover and let steam until the greens are wilted. Remove the cover, stir well and serve as a side dish with grilled meats or fish.

Caramelize: Slice peeled onions thinly. Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until they soften. Add a large pinch of salt, reduce the heat to low and continue cooking, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan every 15 minutes until the onions turn very soft, like jam, and the color of brown sugar, about 1 hour. Serve on hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches or pizza.

Main photo: Caramelized onions make any burger better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

Read More
Roast chicken. Credit: Copyright 2016 iStock

I eased my shopping cart along the meat counter in a national chain grocery store to buy a whole chicken. Roast poultry for dinner seemed like a simple enough proposition. But like so many of us making food-purchasing decisions these days, I was stopped in my tracks by the range of choices.

Should I buy free-range or pasture-raised? Is organic better? Or is the best choice a brand like Foster Farms’ Simply Raised (whatever that means, exactly)?

Confused by all of the labels and marketing claims, I gave up. My family ate a meatless stir-fry for dinner that night.

Later, I learned about a new online resource called Buyingpoultry.com designed to help consumers navigate the supermarket. Could the site guide conscious consumers like me to more sustainable chicken?

Chicken production in a nutshell

Anyone hoping to buy a chicken that truly free-ranged on pastoral farmlands at a grocery store is generally out of luck.

The fact is that 99 percent of all chickens raised for meat (called broilers) in the U.S. come from factory farms. Through consolidation and high-tech breeding practices, the poultry industry has made chicken the most efficient and cheapest animal protein available.

Since 2010, broiler production has increased by more than 10 percent, according to statistics from the USDA. This graph looks surprisingly like the steep climb section on a Stairmaster program. Chicken production, which reached almost 9 billion birds in 2015, is still on the rise. Meanwhile, nationwide demand for barbecued-chicken pizza, chicken Caesar salad and General Tso’s chicken keeps in step.

Trouble is, while making chicken America’s favorite meat, the industrialized production system has incurred an untold debt to human health, the environment and the conditions of its own workers, not to forget the chickens themselves.

Consumers demand healthier chicken

Amid a stream of salmonella-superbug outbreaks and public-health concerns over the routine use of human antibiotics, the USDA announced its plan for stricter regulations and testing in 2015. Two of the largest chicken producers, Tyson and Purdue, pledged to stop using human antibiotics to prevent disease in hatcheries and as growth promoters during maturation. Major food corporations, including McDonald’s, Walmart and Subway, then vowed to shift toward purchasing chicken produced without human antibiotics.

Still, such improvements in the poultry market do not guarantee better animal welfare. According to whistleblower reports about the chicken industry and data from the ASPCA, cage-free chickens are still crammed into windowless barns for their short, dung-filled lives. These Cornish Cross birds, the main hybrid strain for the industry, grow three times as big in two-thirds the time as heritage breeds. Such fast fattening causes bone disorders, cardiovascular issues and other health issues over their roughly 45 days of life.

A sustainable buying guide

This chart can help you navigate the supermarket poultry case. Credit: Copyright 2016 Buyingpoultry.com

This chart can help you navigate the supermarket poultry case. Credit: Copyright 2016 Buyingpoultry.com

After returning from my shopping fail, I Googled Buyingpoultry.com. Created by the Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit Farm Forward, it is the country’s largest online database of poultry brands, products and retailers (including eggs and turkeys).

In the search field I typed in “Open Nature” and then “Foster Farms,” two of the brands I’d considered. “Avoid,” read the bold red graphic on my screen, and below that, “Birds likely suffer from the lowest levels of animal welfare.” The fine print detailed how both brands received an F grade because they did not have any regulated animal-welfare claims or third-party certifications.

“Buyingpoultry.com lets you go to the store with experts,” said Andrew deCoriolis, the website’s architect, when I reached him by phone.

Helpfully, the search results page offered links to the highest-welfare poultry products available as well as to a glossary of labels that clearly illustrates just how obfuscating and, in some cases, downright misleading the claims “free-range,” “pasture-raised” and “humanely raised” actually are.

“Like Seafood Watch, Buyingpoultry.com can be a standard of sustainability and create more transparency,” deCoriolis said.

Buying better poultry

One of the most upsetting experiences for the site’s 5,000 to 10,000 monthly users, according to deCoriolis, is discovering how USDA-certified organic products rank. Browsing Buyingpoultry.com, they’re shocked to see organic products with a D grade. DeCoriolis explained, “Organic is better but not necessarily for the animals.” For one thing, the USDA’s definition of “outdoor access” is ill-defined and does not stipulate indoor enrichments, including perches, or space for natural behaviors such as dust bathing.

At a different grocery store on another day, I opened Buyingpoultry.com on my phone’s browser to check on a regional brand, Draper Valley, for sale. All products in this brand rated “Better Choices,” and the organic line earned a C+. Since this was the best I could get in my area without visiting a small-scale farm, I nabbed this passing-grade chicken for our supper.

So what does it take to rate as a “Best Choices” chicken? According to Buyingpoultry.com’s criteria, these are heritage-breed chickens raised by producers abiding by the highest standards of animal welfare, with their claims certified by third-party groups such as Animal Welfare Approved. 

There’s only a limited supply from retailers in certain markets, including Natural Grocers in Denver, Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and some Whole Foods stores — but none at all at Trader Joe’s or other national chains.

Persistent consumer advocacy is putting pressure on the poultry industry, however. “The big companies are paying attention,” said deCoriolis. In March 2016, Whole Foods committed to stop selling fast-growing breeds by 2024. Starbucks and Nestlé soon followed, joining the animal-welfare initiative toward slower-growing chicken breeds raised in conditions where they can behave and interact like, well, actual all-natural chickens.

Main photo: Buying chicken can be more complicated than roasting it. Credit: Copyright 2016 iStock

Read More
Glynwood chicken, brined and peppered and simply delicious. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrew Lipton

New York’s Hudson Valley is fertile terrain for organic farmers. Organic is a gentler, more gracious way of farming, seemingly old-fashioned when compared to the prevailing industrial example, where chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides are used. When asked by those in corporate farming, “How are you going to feed the world?” Ken Kleinpeter of Glynwood Farm in Cold Spring, New York, speaks for many organic farmers when he answers: “I don’t have to feed the world, I have to feed my community, and someone could feed their community, and someone else could feed their community. That’s how we’re going to feed the world.”

And that’s what happened during Labor Day weekend in Philipstown, New York, when a 300-foot-long table was set to celebrate organic food and the community. The Made in Philipstown Banquet carried through the local theme, from the plates to the benches, flowers to the art, food to the music. Everything was locally made, home thrown, or homegrown and organic.

The free banquet for 400, held at the Garrison Landing on the Hudson River about 50 miles north of New York City, was the brainchild of Garrison locals Stacey Farley and Carinda Swann. “And it all started with the plates,” Farley says. “I looked around my kitchen and noted that none of my plates were made in the U.S.A. Seems like if we are going to all the trouble to grow organic fruits and vegetables and grass-fed meats locally for farm to table, why not serve this precious and delicious food on homemade ceramic plates!”

So local artist and potter Lisa Knaus set about over the summer teaching people in the community to make plates. The ensuing meal, served on the plates, included locally grown vegetables, homemade mozzarella, baguettes, chicken and fruit tarts. What ensued was a lovely, generous community meal, a summer’s last prayer before fall, and a gathering of people who will long remember its grace and beauty.

Main photo: Glynwood Farm provided the locally focused meal’s chicken, which was brined and peppered and simply delicious. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrew Lipton

Read More
A true farmers market features local producers, not wholesalers, so the produce you see is all in season. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

Farmers markets are everywhere. Thanks to a rapid expansion in recent years, there are more than 8,000 farmers markets in the U.S., making it possible for almost everyone to buy fresh food directly from farmers. But with so many stalls and so many different foods, farmers markets can feel overwhelming. How do you find the best produce? Who’s who? And what’s what?

Follow our slideshow to learn the tricks to getting the most out of shopping at your local farmers market. In no time, you will be addicted to the super fresh fruits and vegetables and the seemingly endless variety. Shopping for produce and the other delicacies you can find at a farmers market will become a joy instead of a chore.

More from Zester Daily:

» Shopping for a farmer at the farmers market
» Hey growers, be honest with your farmers market customers
» Changing farmers markets
» How to cook up your own romance in a French market

Main photo: A true farmers market features local producers, not wholesalers, so the produce you see is all in season. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

Read More
The Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. Credit: Copyright Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.

Regionally sourcing flour for 15,000 pounds of bread a week is the equivalent of a lunar landing, but in Vermont one bakery has found the way to do so. Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. By the end of this year, all of the flour that the bakery uses will come from within a 150-mile radius.

“As a baker, it’s a real luxury to have the same wheat all the time,” said Randy George, of Red Hen Baking Co. The Vermont baker spoke about local flour with Quebec farmer Loic Dewavrin at the Northern Grain Growers Association conference in March, in Essex, Vermont. The two have an uncommon partnership.

Such leaps forward don’t register as significant to consumers because growing grains and making flour are almost invisible processes. However, the farmers, bakers and food advocates at the conference appreciated this achievement, and listened hard for details of the challenges en route to this success story.

The importance of local flour

pizza crusts

Pizza crusts are baked in a hearth oven at Red Hen, using organic flour. Credit: Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.

“Normally, you will see some variation from flour lot to flour lot. You can never count on complete consistency,” George said. The typical roller mill draws wheat from a variety of sources, but the flour from Le Moulin des Cedres all comes from wheat grown by Dewavrin and his family at their organic farm, Les Fermes Longpres.

“Roller mills are incredibly expensive infrastructure. I never heard of one that was on a farm,” he said.

Stone mills located on farms are not uncommon. This type of mill is relatively simple to run and inexpensive to purchase. Roller mills, however, are industrial-scale equipment. Les Fermes Longpres, located just west of Montreal, recently finished assembling a small roller mill. The family took four years to complete the project, using parts from a defunct French roller mill and doing much of the work themselves to minimize the investment.

A family mill makes uniform flour

Sacks of bran

Sacks of bran outside the Le Moulin des Cedres mill. Credit: Copyright 2014 Loic Dewavrin

At Le Moulin des Cedres, the Dewavrin family mills wheat grown on the farm. With an eye toward evening out seasonal irregularities, the flour is made from a combination of two years’ crops. This is why baker George was marveling at having access to uniform flour.

All mills use raw materials that are products of nature and have a wide range of potential expression. Since roller mills pool wheat from multiple sources, the result can vary. Even with careful testing of grains to try to keep the range within limited parameters, mills are blending wheat from many different climates and micro climates, from many different farms with various cultivation, harvest and storage habits, and the flour and its performance changes accordingly.

Le Moulin des Cedres is unique, but exemplary of the farm’s approach. When Dewavrin returned to the family farm after a career as an industrial engineer, he and his brothers began to convert a conventional corn-soy crop farm into a more diversified organic operation. This was in pursuit of a system that could support the brothers financially, and support the farm’s health and long-term viability.

To make the most of what they grew, the brothers sought methods to capture crop value on the farm and avoid selling crops into the commodity market as much as possible. Making sunflower oil was the first value-added process they tackled. Next, they considered whether to do something with the soy they grew, or the wheat. After investigating the markets, they saw that what they could do with soy didn’t hold as much promise. Flour seemed the best route. There was enough whole-grain, stone-milled flour, however, and bakers had expressed interest in locally grown and produced white flour.

Keeping the integrity of the crop

Wheat fields

Wheat fields at Les Fermes Longpres farm. Credit: Copyright 2014 Loic Dewavrin

The idea of having full command of the crop from seed to selling had great appeal to the Dewavrin family. Without running a mill themselves, their production was mixed with grains from other farms.

“Our goal was to keep the integrity of the crop,” Dewavrin explained. Selling wheat to a mill meant their crops were mixed with many others. “We lost the purity of the product and the controlled efforts we put into it.”

Les Fermes Longpres is a very careful farm. The family puts a lot of thought into crop rotations, tillage, and other ways of building good soil, the basic tenet of organic farming.

For the mill, they also worked hard on wheat quality issues, from selecting plant varieties to combating diseases and pests that challenge wheat in the field, and in storage. They began milling slowly last year, determined to understand the process and create a good flour for bakers.

A bakery-mill collaboration

local flour

The bread at Red Hen Baking Co. carries a sign touting the locally sourced flour. Credit: Copyright Randy George

Feedback from bakeries like Red Hen, one of the few bakeries using the mill’s limited supply, helped in this area. In response to what George observed when baking with Les Cedres’ early mill runs, Dewavrin increased the level of starch damage slightly to improve the baking quality of the flour.

“Damaged starch” is an odd term. While it sounds like a bad thing, it’s just milling terminology for opening up the starch granules.

“Getting just the right amount of ‘damage’ is critical so that the flour is in the right state for the baker to continue the ‘damage’ in the baking process,” George said. All mills have to get this right, so the adjustment made is not unique. But the way that the correction came about, through the baker communicating with the farmer/miller was entirely different than the norm.

Leaps forward in decentralizing the production of staple crops don’t register as significant, not yet. But the more that bakers seek local flour, and the more that farmers seek noncommodity marketing options, the more consumers will learn to understand and appreciate the small food mountains people are moving.

Main photo: The Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. Credit: Copyright Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.

Read More
A salad of wild greens, drizzled with plenty of olive oil, contains more nutrients than commercially grown greens. Credit: Copyright Rosemary Barron

The diet world is a very crowded place, and advice is constantly changing. But, very slowly, we’re coming to realize what the physicians of Greek antiquity well understood — that “food” is far more than something we put in our mouths and swallow. In fact, the ancient diet of the Cretans is once again gaining favor.

What is the Cretan diet?

A eureka moment early in our own societies’ attempts to understand the relationship between food and health took place 70 years ago. In wealthy America, heart disease was on the rise. A U.S. researcher, Ancel Keys, discovered that in war-torn Europe, especially in poverty-stricken Crete, heart disease was relatively rare. He concluded that it was  because of the Cretans’ diet and way of life. The timing of his study has since been criticized (the Orthodox Church observes many fasts and, in the 1940s, these were strictly adhered to), but the general good health of the people was there for all to see.

I first visited Crete just 20 years after Keys. I was there as a student volunteer on an archaeological dig. It took me more than a day to reach the dig (there was, then, less than 40 miles of tarmac road on the entire island). It was a two-hour walk to the nearest village, and this Crete wasn’t much different from the island Keys experienced. In the weeks I spent there, I felt much healthier than I had at home in London. I knew that the reason for this was the food, and the sharing of our tables with friends and strangers. In short, it was because of the Cretan diet.

Sorting fact from fiction isn’t easy

In the intervening years, a great deal has been written about the benefits and dishes of various diets, especially the Mediterranean diet. The subject of food attracts huge research grants and promotional fees from commercial companies. Unsurprisingly, the core finding in that original research on Crete — the link between local foods, food production, enjoyment of food and good health — has disappeared under a pile of lab-inspired markers and recipes.

Today, some of us can buy Cretan olive oils and cheeses in our stores. These give us the good flavors of the island and the advantage of being able to consume cheeses made with milk from animals that have roamed free over herb-covered hills, but it isn’t the whole story. We can follow the Cretan diet (from the Greek, diaita, meaning “way of life”) to our advantage wherever we are by enjoying a large diversity of foods that are grown or gathered locally, that are at the peak of their seasonal (nutritional) best and that excite us with their different flavors and textures. This holds true for fish and meat, too. They both have seasons, based on the breeding habits of the animals and fish, and their ability to feed well.

Thus, what are now the two most serious Orthodox fasts — Lent (March, lamb-breeding season) and August (when it’s hot and the land is parched) — have their roots in a way of life that was followed long before Christianity. This attitude to true sustainability (which ensures future life) exists on Crete even when food is plentiful, and some of the most appreciated island foods are what we generally consider to be “lesser” fish and meats – octopus and other seafood, tiny fish, snails, offal and small game.

What the Cretan diet can do for you

But we’re not Cretans, so why should we want to follow their diet? There’s one particular reasons why I like to: It means I can rely on my own judgment as to whether something is “good for me,” as I can always check the 4,000 years of food wisdom that has passed down from those smart, early inhabitants of Crete, the Minoans. Following a few simple tenets, and stocking your pantry with some quality ingredients, you, too, can create for yourself the Cretan diet.

Use olive oil like a Cretan

Until a generation ago, Cretans consumed around five times more olive oil than other Greeks, and Greeks consumed per capita the most olive oil in the world. To an islander, all olive oil is extra virgin, and only consumed in the year of its production. There’s plenty of evidence now that olive oil (extra virgin and fresh) is a “super food,” so much of the Cretans’ good health can be traced to its copious use in island kitchens. For those of us without an olive tree, it’s not quite so simple. Extra virgin olive oil is not only expensive, it’s rare for the current season’s product to reach our stores. So we lose out on what is its greatest value for us. One solution is to build a relationship with a producer and buy direct.

Love those green leaves, the wilder the better

A neighbor of mine on Crete was able to identify more than 60 wild greens and herbs. She knew exactly where and when to find certain species, and how they were best served. She was well known locally for her remarkable skill, but every Cretan cook could — and many still can — identify a dozen or so wild greens. Wild greens contain more, and a greater variety of, nutrients than garden- or commercially grown greens. Many of the best garden greens, as far as nutrients and flavor, end up on the compost heap — beet, turnip and radish greens. Farmers markets are now a good source of these greens and others, and many of us enjoy foraging in the countryside, wherever we are. Turned into salads or side dishes, Cretan-style, with plenty of olive oil, they make very good eating.

Look for sheep-milk and goat-milk cheeses

Not only do Cretans have an admirable capacity for consuming olive oil, they are also among the world’s largest consumers of cheese. But their cheeses are different from many available in our stores. Made with milk (mostly sheep, some goat) from animals that eat a melange of wild herbs and greens, and graze outside year-round, they possess nutrients that are missing from cheeses made with highly processed factory-farmed milk. If you can’t buy Cretan cheeses, seek out cheeses made with milk from pasture-raised cows or goats.

Measure herbs with your hand, not with a spoon

Measuring spoons are unknown in traditional Cretan kitchens. Your hand is the perfect measure for herbs and spices. You see what you are adding to a dish and, with dried herbs and spices, the heat of your palm releases their wonderful aromas, in the process delighting you, the cook.

Sweeten the natural way

Honey is another “super food” that Crete has in abundance. With only a few days a year without sunshine and much pesticide-free land, bees have a good life on the island. Honey is more than sugar-sweetener — it has nutritional and medicinal qualities, too. But only when the bees have a healthy environment. A good substitute is local honey from bees that have enjoyed pesticide-free pollen.

Give your gut a helping hand

Yogurt made from the milk of animals that have grazed on herbs or grass and the necessary “friendly bacteria” is a very different food from the commercial yogurts that have a shelf life of weeks. Its bacteria are alive and ready to do their good work, keeping your gut in good order. These bacteria are even more valuable to us now, with so much of our foods being highly processed.

Cretan yogurt, made from sheep/goat milk, is thick, creamy and utterly delicious but, at the moment, travels only as far as Athens. It’s easy to make your own at home; for the best results, use full-fat organic milk. Other ways, Cretan-style, to keep your gut healthy is to include naturally fermented (wine) vinegar, pickles, fish and cured olives in your culinary repertoire.

Drink like a Cretan, too

Existing right at the heart of the ancient “wine world,” it’s no wonder wine is as much part of a Cretan’s diet as olive oil. Like olive oil, wine to a Cretan is a drink made that year from grapes nearby (village wine) and consumed with gusto. Appreciated as it is, village wine takes getting used to, so it’s good news that, today, some of the island’s wineries are winning medals on the world stage. Well-made, modern Cretan wines are particularly interesting when made with the island’s unique, and sometimes ancient, grape varietals. On Cretan tables, wine and food are inseparable. Wine is a digestif, and a way of welcoming all to the table — there’s always plenty of it on Cretan tables.

A Minoan storage pot

A Cretan storage pot (pithoi) can contain grain, pulses or olives. Credit: Copyright Rosemary Barron

Staples for the ‘Cretan shelf’ of your pantry

  • Olive oil: extra virgin
  • Olives: brine-cured, young and green, salt-cured, plump and fleshy, sweet and tiny
  • Capers and caper leaves, salt-packed
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Sea salt, fine and coarse
  • Spices: allspice, ground; cinnamon, sticks and ground; coriander seeds, whole and ground; cumin, whole and ground; black peppercorns; sumac, ground; nutmeg; cloves; vanilla
  • Dried herbs: rigani (Greek oregano), marjoram, rosemary, thyme, sage, bay leaves
  • Dried fruit: currants, small dark raisins, large plump sultanas, figs, prunes
  • Honey: Cretan mountain sage, orange blossom, Hymettus
  • Nuts: whole unblanched almonds, walnuts in the shell, pine nuts, unsalted pistachio nuts, hazelnuts (filberts)
  • Seeds: melon, pumpkin, sesame
  • Dried pulses: garbanzo beans (chickpeas), white beans (great northerns, cannellini), green lentils, brown lentils, yellow split peas, butter (large lima) beans, black-eyed peas
  • Preserved lemons
  • Preserved fish: salted anchovies, sardines packed in olive oil or brine, tuna packed in olive oil, oil-cured bonito (lakertha), sun-dried or smoked mackerel or octopus, smoked eel
  • Preserved grape leaves

From your refrigerator or freezer

  • Cheeses: graviera, aged kephalotyri, manouri, myzithra, brine-stored feta
  • Yogurt: sheep milk, good-quality cow’s milk
  • Fresh or frozen filo sheets: you can store fresh filo for up to 2 days, frozen filo for up to 4 weeks

In your herb garden

  • Flat-leaf parsley, cilantro (fresh coriander), thyme, rosemary, bay laurel, marjoram
  • Fennel, dill, mint (many varieties, including “garden,” small-leaf), small-leaf basil, sage, lovage, savory, chives
  • Rose- and lemon-scented geranium leaves

Beet Greens With Latholemono

Beet greens are only one of a huge variety of wild or garden greens Cretans bring to the table. You can substitute turnip greens, radish tops, amaranth greens, water spinach, ruby chard or mustard greens (charlock) for the beet greens, and use a sauce of olive oil and red wine vinegar in place of the lemon juice.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 2 to 5 minutes, depending on the green

Total time: 7 to 10 minutes

Yield: 6 for a meze serving, 4 as a side dish

Ingredients

1 1/4 pounds beet greens

For serving

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or to taste

Coarse-grain sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Lemon wedges

Directions

1. Rinse the greens in several changes of cold water. Remove any tough stalks from the greens and tear the leaves into bite-size pieces.

2. Steam the greens. Or place them in a non-reactive saucepan, add 4 tablespoons boiling water, and cook, stirring once or twice with a fork, for 1 to 2 minutes. Take care not to overcook. Drain well in a colander, pressing the greens against the sides with a wooden spoon.

3. To serve, transfer the greens to a platter and lightly fork them to lift and separate the leaves. Add the olive oil and sprinkle with a generous amount of salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature, with lemon wedges.

Note: Prepare turnip greens and radish tops the same way as beet greens and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Break off the tender sprigs of leaves from water spinach and mustard greens and cook 4 to 5 minutes. Amaranth greens and young ruby chard take only 1 to 2 minutes to cook. Take care not to overcook.

Main photo: A salad of wild greens, drizzled with plenty of olive oil, contains more nutrients than commercially grown greens. Credit: Copyright Rosemary Barron

Read More
Survey of wheat sensitivity research suggests there may be multiple suspects. Credit: iStock

“The world doesn’t want to know the truth about gluten,” graduate student Lisa Kissing Kucek joked last July under a tent at Cornell University’s research farm in Freeville, N.Y. Lightning cut the sky, and we, a group of farmers and bakers, dashed for our cars before she could tell us what she’d discovered.

Now we know. Her research, “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” was published recently in the journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. Kissing Kucek and her colleagues reviewed more than 200 scientific research papers to see what is known about how different wheat varieties and our processing methods affect people’s sensitivity to wheat.

The conclusions of her literature review are cautious, far more so than the declarations made in such books as “Wheat Belly,” which considers modern wheat a chronic poison. Kissing Kucek was curious what wheat actually does in the human body and began by looking at gluten and the pathologies associated with it.

“We are missing a lot just by focusing on gluten,” she said. “So to see what actually is going on, I extended that to wheat.”

Her inquiry grew to cover a broad territory, including the problems caused by wheat, how those problems vary by wheat species and variety, and the role of processing methods. It considered everything from celiac disease, wheat allergy and nonceliac wheat sensitivity (NCWS), to fructose malabsorption and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

The review pairs well with other Cornell research. The university and its research partners received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant in 2011 to look at heritage wheat varieties. Field trials, lab analysis and baking trials are all part of this grant project, which ends in 2016.

Vintage wheat varieties have captured the imagination of a gluten-shy public, and the paper includes thorough descriptions of wheat kernels and wheat genetics. The material is dense, but Kissing Kucek explains it in an easy to follow video presentation.

Many people have trouble digesting fructose and certain carbohydrates, collectively known as FODMAPS. “These individuals experience bloating and gas when consuming large amounts dairy, high fructose corn syrup, stone fruits and wheat,” she said. “As many foods contain FODMAPS, if these individuals only remove wheat gluten from their diet, their symptoms will likely persist.”

Lynn Veenstra, also of Cornell, surveyed fructan research for the paper. Some of the findings she reviewed were featured in a recent Washington Post article about FODMAPS.

Illnesses like nonceliac wheat sensitivity, IBS and fructose malabsorption can be hard to diagnose. But most of the research points to multiple triggers beyond gluten proteins or other parts of wheat.

Little about gluten is straightforward

Contrary to popular or wishful thinking, old wheats don’t wear halos.

“There is no perfect wheat species that reduces all types of wheat sensitivity,” said Kissing Kucek. However, einkorn is promising because it contains fewer celiac reactive compounds than heritage and modern wheat varieties. Einkorn dates from the very early domestication of staple crops; emmer and spelt are also classified as ancient. Heritage or heirloom grains refer to older seed varieties developed before 1950. Modern grain varieties generally have shorter stalks, which allow the plants to receive heavy doses of fertilizer without falling down in the field.

Different wheat varieties vary widely in their reactivity for celiac and wheat allergy. But we don’t know the effect on wheat sensitivity for many of the old or new wheat varieties used in the United States. Europe is screening more varieties. Yet nothing is straightforward when interpreting natural systems.

Figuring out how gluten works in our bodies is tough. Figuring out how growing conditions or plant variety might affect a crop’s potential to harm us is also tough. Understanding the role processing methods play also needs more research, but there’s enough information to cause concern over a few things.

One item —vital wheat gluten — is common in the food supply, and has the potential to cause reactions. It’s used to bind multigrain breads. A cheap protein and a great emulsifier and binder, it’s also widely used in industrial food processing. Irradiated flour and other baking additives also are cited as worrisome.

However, the paper’s section on processing offers some hope, too. Grain sprouting for instance, could help some people digest the complex proteins that give some eaters grief. Longer fermentation also breaks down proteins that can cause some forms of wheat sensitivity.

Other research questions about wheat and gluten are still being charted. A recent Mother Jones story about research at The Bread Lab of Washington State University suggests that modern baking is a bigger culprit than modern wheat. The publication Eating Well also has a new story on gluten by Sam Fromartz called “Unraveling the Gluten-Free Trend.” Like his recent book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf,” the article nicely navigates the maze of fears about eating wheat and gluten.

Kissing Kucek’s “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” maps the research already done. Like any realistic map, the guide offers facts, not commandments of the “Here Be Dragons” sort. Answers might be found, the paper suggests, in turning to traditions.

This confirms what I’ve long suspected: That we need to unravel some of the processing developed over the last 150 years. In that time, we’ve adopted roller milling, which leaves behind most of the bran and germ. While I never fell out of love with wheat or gluten, I’ve grown enamored of the taste of fresh stone ground flour, and the concept of using all parts of the grain. Perhaps there is something that each lends the other, and to us, as we turn this plant into food. I think that the unity of stone milling is essential to healthy utilization of grains. Some professional bakers believe this too, and are working exclusively with fresh milled whole grain flours.

As people negotiate a friendly relationship with bread, I am hoping that my personal truth about gluten might gain scientific ground.

Main photo: Survey of wheat sensitivity research suggests there may be multiple suspects. Credit: iStock

Read More
Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato, named by Craig LeHoullier, author of

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.

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.

Craig LeHoullier, author of "Epic Tomatoes," holds a Cherokee Purple tomato.  Credit: Susan Lutz

Craig LeHoullier, author of “Epic Tomatoes,” holds a Cherokee Purple tomato. Credit: Susan Lutz

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

Epic Tomatoes

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

Read More