Articles in Gardening

Triad of farm-to-table centerpieces. Credit: Adair Seldon

If you ask me, perfection is overrated. I give it an 8.2. You can obsess and compulse until you’re just the right shade of blue in the face, but to create an artful eyeful that requires little primping, preening or pruning? That’s a 10.

Store-bought flowers in a vase are fine — I love the blooming things as much as the next hibiscus hugger. But when you make the meal with your own two hands, shouldn’t your centerpiece complement your handiwork? You don’t have to Martha-size it and grow your own tulips, turnips and twine. But why not throw together something quick and fresh that says “I am an eco-chic entertainer.”

Farm-to-table centerpieces that you can eat the next day are creatively fulfilling and less landfilling. Seasonal root vegetables, fruits, herbs, pumpkins and squashes will do all the heavy lifting for you. Well, most of it, anyway. You need at least one good eye. But don’t let it stray into OCD territory. Think fashionista farmer, not perfectionista mogul. Remember, Martha’s not invited.

Believe it or not, Martha’s not the originator of ornamental fuss. Holiday centerpieces go way back before the decline of carbon civilization.

Centerpieces through the ages

The Romans used decorative leaves, branches and foliage in elaborately designed containers often made of ceramics and rock crystal.

Aristocratic tables in the Middle Ages were said to be so crammed with food, there wasn’t room for centerpieces, although at Christmas, centerpieces may have included pastry and marzipan shaped like people, animals, scenes or decorative objects.

Swiss chard centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

Swiss chard centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

Tables from the 17th-century featured silver or gold platters that showed off the host’s wealth and status with whole animal heads or a cooked peacock with its colorful feathers adorning the platter.

Whereas the 18th century introduced silk and porcelain flowers, the 19th century donned fresh flowers, foliage, fruit, candelabras and molded puddings and jellies. Throughout both centuries, centerpieces were often vertically constructed using pyramids of food on tiered dishes called epergnes.

By World War I, decorative objects began to replace flowers and foliage, but during the 1960s and ’70s, flowers and grasses made a comeback.

Today, in the era of climate change and environmental consciousness, I proclaim it the age of the sustainable table with the eco-chic, farm-to-table centerpiece.

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Carrot centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

10 tips for creating a farm-to-table centerpiece

1. Don’t buy food for a centerpiece that you won’t eat afterward. Wasting food is not eco chic! (Note: make sure to add water to a vase if you’re using leafy greens.)

2. Celebrate the season with local, seasonal produce. Don’t even think about buying fruit from Chile!

Tandem of herbs. Credit: Adair Seldon

Tandem of herbs. Credit: Adair Seldon

3. Don’t make the arrangements so tall that you can’t see your guests (except for the uninvited ones, so keep some long fennel or chard in the fridge, just in case).

4. You can line up multiple small (and short) arrangements along the center of the table. Who says a large, dominant one is always the best choice? I think Maria Shriver would agree.

5. Use glasses, jars, vases and vessels you have around. They don’t have to match.

6. Don’t spend money on crap you don’t need (or won’t eat)! Remember those landfills!

7. If you’re going to add store-bought flowers, buy them at the farmers market and make sure they were grown without pesticides. Cut flowers full of pesticides at the table may spur someone’s allergy. Just sayin’.

Radish centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

Radish centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

8. Don’t do doilies. You might as well wear an Elizabethan collar. Trust me. Neither are the eco-chic look you’re going for.

9. No stacked cookies with twine around them. Can you lay off the Pinterest for one lousy day?

10. If someone admires an arrangement, be generous and gift it. Less pressure to use up all those rutabagas (see tip No. 1).

When you create your own farm-to-table centerpiece, you’ll be an eco-chic badass. And that’s a good thing.

Main photo: Triad of farm-to-table centerpieces. Credit: Adair Seldon

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Quinces on a tree. Credit: iStock

Now is the season of quinces: Fruit that is delicious in both sweet and savory dishes, is easily preserved, and one that enhances a room with an unmistakable yet delicate fragrance. Just two years ago, quinces seemed to be the forgotten fruit: They were difficult to buy, considered hard to cook, and few people grew the trees. Happily, at least in Britain, this seems to be changing.

Although still not common, quinces are now reasonably easy to buy in season and nurseries are seeing increased interest in the trees. For many hundreds of years in Britain, quinces were more popular than apples because cooked fruit, in general, was regarded as safer to eat. This was because the glut at harvest time led people to overindulge and become ill.

Quinces may never recover their place at the top of the table, but they do deserve to be more widely used. (This piece’s co-author, Jane McMorland Hunter, co-wrote “Quinces, Growing and Cooking,”  just published by Prospect Books.)

The best way to ensure a supply of quinces is to grow your own. The trees are attractive, with beautiful blossoms in spring, and compact enough to fit in most gardens. Failing that, the fruit can be bought from greengrocers, farmers’ markets and even the better supermarkets. Quinces’ appearance can vary wildly, from huge immaculate fruits from the Middle East to small, misshapen and blemished specimens. The latter may not look so appealing, but they will probably have come from a local grower and the flavor could be even better. You should avoid fruit that is obviously bruised, but a few blemishes on the skin rarely matter.

A secret weapon for stewed meats

Quinces usually need to be cooked before they are eaten. The raw fruits tend to be rock solid and sharp tasting, but cooking softens the flesh and gives it a pinkish hue. The natural acidity is easily tempered and is actually an advantage in many dishes.

Quinces and a bottle of homemade ratafia.  Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

Quinces and a bottle of homemade ratafia. Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

It counteracts the greasiness found in fatty meats, game in particular; quinces can be served in slices with the meat or as an accompanying sauce. In Britain, quinces were traditionally served with partridge, and in Germany and South Africa, quince sauce is served with pork and mutton instead of apple or mint. The fruit complements Middle Eastern tagines and stews and also goes well with cheese — not just as the well-known combination with Manchego, but blue cheeses and the sharper goat’s cheeses too. Membrillo, or quince paste, is the most widespread preserve, but quince jam, jelly and even curd is delicious.

In puddings or cakes, they can be used to replace or supplement apples or pears in almost any recipe, bringing a deliciously different taste. Equally, if you don’t have enough quinces for a recipe you can always make up the difference with apples. The quince’s sharpness means you can make wonderfully rich desserts with no danger of the sweetness becoming cloying.

There is a surprising amount of juice in the fruits, and drinks made from quinces range from delicious cordials to potent liqueurs and even wine. You can round off any meal with quince confections. They can be made into delicate, subtle chocolates or rich, gooey sweets.

Finally, a word of warning before you start cooking. Quince seeds, like apple seeds, are poisonous, containing tiny amounts of cyanide. You would need to eat an awful lot to actually do yourself any harm, but you should remove them at some stage in cooking.

Ratafia

Look in almost any reference book and you will find a different definition of ratafia: a spirit infused with almonds or fruit used to toast a deal or bargain, a 19th century English biscuit or a French aperitif made from grape juice and brandy. It frequently appears in Georgette Heyer’s original Regency romance novels, where it is a drink enjoyed by the ladies, but scorned by the gentlemen of the time.

Even the origins of the word are obscure, attributed variously to French Creole or Latin. The definition we like best is that it was the liqueur drunk at the ceremonies ratifying European treaties from the 15th century onward. The name could come from the Latin rata fiat (let the deal be settled). The liqueur usually consisted of fruit juices, kernels or nuts soaked in a sweetened brandy base, with almond flavoring being particularly popular. The recipe below is based on one in “The Modern Cook,” written by Vincent la Chapelle in 1733.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes, plus cooling and steeping time

Yield: 750 milliliters

Ingredients

2 large, ripe quinces (about 1 1/2 cups)

1/4 cup caster sugar

Pinch of cinnamon

1 whole clove

1 whole white or black peppercorn

1 1/2 cups brandy

1/2 cup almonds, blanched for 2 minutes and skinned

Directions

1. Cut the quinces into quarters or eighths lengthwise, depending on their size, and put through a juicer. The original recipe suggests that you grate the fruit, put it in a cloth and “squeese it with all your Might,” but this is extremely hard work. If you end up with much less, or much more, than 1 1/2 cups of juice, simply adjust the other ingredients in proportion.

2. Put the juice in a pan, bring to the boil and then remove from the heat and allow to cool.

3. Put the sugar, cinnamon, clove and peppercorn into a pan with ¼ cup water and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.

4. Pour the juice, brandy and sugar solution into a bowl and stir so that the three combine. Add the almonds, if using. Pour into a jar, seal and leave in a cool, dark place for two to three months.

5. Strain the liquid through a muslin cloth. Do not squeeze the cloth, as you want the liqueur to be as clear as possible. Finally, decant into a bottle and seal; as Vincent la Chapelle puts it, “bottles stopped very close” will keep almost indefinitely.

Main photo: Quinces on a tree. Credit: iStock

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A sign posted by Quivira’s guru Jim Barauski writes the tenets of Biodynamic farming for all to see. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Travel through Northern California and signs of the severe drought are everywhere. In suburban Healdsburg, front lawns are dead, flowers faded, home vegetable gardens finished weeks early. The same can be seen in Sebastopol, Sonoma and Santa Rosa. The Russian River above Redwood Valley is dry.

An article in “The Press Democrat” in Santa Rosa reported a high school sophomore’s unique water fence concept, a fence that stores rainwater. Ingenious. But there’s been no rain to store for at least three months.

California’s groundwater resources are in jeopardy, declining for many years at rates never seen before.

“Reliable groundwater supplies in California are essential to the health and well-being of all Americans. About half of the fruits and vegetables are grown in California. Without an improved management of groundwater in the state, California’s agricultural capacity will become smaller and unreliable,” says Miles Reiter, chairman and CEO of Driscoll’s, a leading supplier of fresh berries.

How are wineries faring in drought?

If the drought is endangering fruits and vegetables, what are its effects on the region’s vineyards?

Quivira and DaVero, two vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley, have incorporated the practices of biodynamic farming.

Biodynamics is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition. It stresses a holistic understanding of agriculture, treating all aspects of a farm, from soil fertility to the livestock, as interrelated. The principles, that agriculture seeks to heal the earth, were introduced by Rudolf Steiner in 1924.

People tending biodynamic vineyards have spent years conditioning their soils with preparations made of fermented manure, minerals and herbs, and understanding the use of earthly and cosmic rhythms and cycles in creating a healthy farm.

Biodynamic farmers also pioneered some of the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) ventures. CSAs began taking root in Europe and Japan in the 1960s, and the movement had come to the United States by the mid-1980s.

Biodynamic guru

Quivira Vineyards and Winery specializes in small-lot wines from varietals specifically matched to the effects of hot summer days and cool coastal nights on its soil.

Jim Barauski, the biodynamic guru for Quivira says, “Going biodynamic was a decision made with a conscience toward moving away from cultivation and building better soils. Anthroposophy is the spiritual science behind biodynamics. If we take something out of the soil, we put something better back in. We feed the microbiotic life with natural, time-tested techniques.”

The winery’s large demonstration garden is a real awakening. The herbs and berries are neatly arranged in beds, the signage hand-printed and not a weed in sight. The beehives — a design called Golden Hives — were designed for the health and development of the colony and to minimize the impact from human interaction (more frequent opening of hives weakens their health).

Vineyard manager Ned Horton says he quietly works with the bees and rarely, if ever, gets stung.

“The health of the bees has been challenged on many levels, and the difference in bien (one-being, or oneness, that describes a bee colony) has to be understood within the context of the global landscape and the current one-dimensional human world view. The challenges for the well-being of the bees reflect our own struggle in our striving for health and happiness. The bees are intended to support the gardens and herbs, and the gardens of course, support the wines,” Horton says.

Each year, Quivira also plants a substantial amount of cover crops, which helps conserve water use. These plants also decompose, fortifying the soil, and open pathways for worms that aerate the soil, eventually creating a balance or a homeostasis.

Winemaker Hugh Chappelle says, “The light from the environment falls into matter so there is some quality of light in the wine. The entire vineyard is, in a way, like a human being, so complex and so individual. But as much as possible, each living thing on the farm supports the other.”

Winery started with olives

DaVero Farms and Winery, started by Ridgely Evers and Colleen McGlynn in 1982, is a 30-acre farm on which the couple had planted one olive tree. In 1990 they began to import olive trees from Tuscany. Through the years, their olive oil has been acknowledged as some of the best in the world.

In 2000, the couple planted their first small vineyard in Sangiovese and then the rare Sagrantino, Italian varietals because the Dry Creek Valley’s climate is similar to that of the Mediterranean region, characterized by hot, dry summer days and cool nights.

In 2007 Evers and McGlynn began the process of converting DaVero to biodynamic. Mary Foley, the original soil manager, transformed the soil into a vibrant, healthy farm. Foley, however, moved to the Sierra and advises from afar; Michael Presley now has the job.

As the tour finished with a lunch and wine tasting, the temperature at the vineyard had hit 95 degrees.

Presley promised it would begin to rain on Sept. 22. “It always does,” he claims.

Having seen a series of seemingly magical transformations through biodynamic gardening at the wineries, anything seemed possible.

It rained on Sept. 18.

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Roasted Cauliflower salad by Colleen McGlynn, who started DaVero Farms and Winery in Healdsburg, Calif., in 1982. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Colleen McGlynn’s Roasted Cauliflower

Prep time: 25 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
Ingredients
1 head cauliflower
1 garlic glove
3 pieces of anchovy
1 wedge preserved lemon
Fruity olive oil
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons salted capers
Chili flakes, to taste
Handful of Italian parsley leaves, chopped
Kosher salt and pepper
Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Separate cauliflower into florets and toss in a bowl with a film of mild olive oil, salt to taste, spread on a sheet pan and put into 350 F oven for 10-15 minutes, or until browned.
3. Make a vinaigrette by mashing together the garlic, anchovy and lemon wedge into a paste. (If you don’t have preserved lemon, you can substitute the zest and juice of one lemon.) Put into a bowl, squeeze in the lemon juice and a “good glug” of fruity olive oil.  Stir together.
4. Combine the warm cauliflower with the raisins, capers, a pinch of chili flakes and chopped parsley, add to the vinaigrette.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Serve at room temperature.

Main photo: Quivira Vineyards and Winery’s Jim Barauski has posted a sign outlining the tenets of biodynamic farming. Credit: Katherine Leiner

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Ground zero for heritage seed savers: Jefferson’s Monticello. 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.”

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.

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Ira Wallace, founder of Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival. Credit: Susan Lutz

Grain diversity

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

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Chin baung kyaw is a popular Burmese curry. Credit: Maddy Crowell

A number of Chicago’s 3,000 Burmese refugees have found a place that feels like home, improbably situated in the middle of a thriving metropolis of 2.6 million people: a lush, sprawling acre of Midwestern farmland. Tucked inside an 8-foot-tall metal fence and pinched between the shadows of large brick apartment complexes, this all-organic farm gives these and other refugees a chance to do what they know best.

“Just about everybody here was a farmer back home,” says Linda Seyler, the manager of the Global Garden Refugee Training Farm. “They used the word home a lot, especially when we were building this. It’s in a ‘being resettled finally’ sense.”

AUTHOR


Maddy Crowell

Maddy Crowell is a multimedia freelance journalist who has previously reported out of Ghana and Morocco. Twitter: @madcrowell

Converted from the ruins of a candy distribution warehouse, the land was purchased by the Refugee Agricultural Partnership (an arm of the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement) from the city of Chicago for $1 (although apparently the city has yet to collect). Located in the ethnically diverse Albany Park neighborhood, it is the only refugee farm in Illinois, and one of a small handful in the United States.

Seyler says many of the urban farmers at Global Garden spent at least 20 years of their lives in refugee camps after being forced out of their home countries. “That’s 20 years in limbo,” she says. “They were not allowed to work, and everything is rationed — food, water, living space.”

With the farm, the refugees nurture a small piece of land they can call their own, rent free. For many, it’s also an escape from the chaos of the city. A hundred individual plots feed about 100 Bhutanese, Burmese, Nepalese and Congolese families, and anything left over can be sold at a nearby farmers market.

It’s a living amoeba of shared space, with farmers tending not only their own gardens but also their neighbors’. Some farmers push their growing season as late as November to get the last of the summer harvest.

Despite ministering to four different ethnic groups, Seyler found surprising agreement when it came to choosing which crops would kick-start the farm. “There would be one picture of some greens in the catalog, and they’d all say, ‘We like that!’ The pictures evoked something,” she says. She ordered anything they requested from a Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog.

Roselle is a sour surprise

At first, the farm was dotted with standard American crops — spinach, corn, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, basil, thyme, sunflowers, mustard greens. Soon, however, Seyler began to notice a crop she didn’t recognize.

Chin baung, or roselle in English, announced itself in the form of red sticks poking up from the ground and appeared on the farm three years ago. A chewy, leafy, tart relative of the hibiscus family, the plant is as common in Myanmar as basil is here. Many Burmese families began searching it out as soon as they emigrated.

“My dad first ordered it from Thailand because he didn’t know there were seeds here,” explains 16-year-old Su Mon, a Burmese refugee who has spent the past seven years in Chicago. Mon sells her family’s vegetables at a local farmers market in Chicago every Saturday, including bunches of chin baung. “It’s very, very popular. Every Burmese family plants it.”

Before the Albany Park farm was founded in 2011, the Mon family stocked up on chin baung by traveling to Fort Wayne, Ind., which has a large Burmese population. Although the seeds are expensive, chin baung grows fast and stays hearty in the field a long time. It emerges as a maroon stem, and then buds into a three-leaved green leaf, edible immediately.

Known as mei qui qie in Mandarin Chinese, krajeap in Thai and asam paya in Indonesia, the plant does more than add a tangy kick: it’s full of iron, calcium, niacin, riboflavin and vitamin C, and can either be ground for tea or chopped up and added to salads. Mexicans put its red flowers in their tea for a tart Flor de Jamaica-flavored accent. Most Burmese throw the leaves on top of anything, from chicken soup to fish curry.

At the local Horner Park farmers market, one bunch of chin baung sells for $2 and is becoming popular among American customers looking to add some exotic leafy greens to their dinners. It provides a chewy complement to a lemony chicken or whitefish.

But for the Burmese, chin baung is invariably the featured ingredient of any meal. Chin baung kyaw is a popular Burmese curry, a deeply flavorful whirlwind for the taste buds — spicy and sour at the same time.

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A Burmese refugee sits after a long day of farming. Credit: Maddy Crowell

Chin Baung Kyaw (Fried Roselle Leaves)

Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 3 to 5 servings

Ingredients

2 bunches roselle leaves

1 tablespoon cooking oil

¼ tablespoon turmeric powder

¼ tablespoon red chili powder

1 medium red onion, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon pounded dried shrimp (optional)

1 small can of shredded bamboo shoots (not raw)

6 green chilies

Bean noodles (optional)

Directions

Prepare the roselle by breaking off the leaves at the base. Wash and drain the leaves.

Heat the oil in a frying pan.

Add turmeric, red chili powder, onion and garlic. Stir until the onion paste is golden brown.

Add the dried shrimp if using, roselle leaves, 1 tablespoon of water and stir well. Add salt if desired.

When the roselle leaves are soft, add the shredded bamboo shoots and green chilies. For extra spice, cut small slits into the chilies.

Cover and let simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. In a separate pan, heat up the bean noodles if using or steam rice for extra texture.

Main photo: Chin baung kyaw is a popular Burmese curry. Credit: Maddy Crowell

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Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discusses permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

What is the connection between conventional food systems, erosion and global warming? Climate change accelerates as industrial agriculture, with its heavy plowing and application of pesticides, sends carbon into the atmosphere. This creates soil loss and depletes the amount of carbon the soil is able to store. The Monsanto-sponsored Green Revolution in Africa and Asia was bolstered by the idea that we needed to find a way to break out of nature’s boundaries to provide enough food for a growing population. Yet decades of synthetic fertilizer use and industrial-style monocropping have created diseased soils, broken ecosystems and social instability.

Raj Patel, who has written extensively about the need to shift our relationship to food, says the problem with the food system is not that we don’t produce enough calories to eradicate hunger. Instead, it’s that the system puts a priority on profit and institutional consolidation. The upshot: More than 1 billion people are malnourished and 2 billion are overweight.

Perhaps the answer lies in the dirt.

The earth beneath our feet contains billions of microorganisms — huge quantities of carbon in the form of bio-matter. Organic farming, permaculture and other regenerative food-growing strategies enrich soils and restore their ability to store carbon.

I have spent the past eight years documenting regenerative design around the world, deeply motivated as a new mother to find solutions to our global ecological crisis. I’ve used my anthropology background to put together a book, “Sustainable [R]evolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms and Communities Worldwide.” A catalog of 60 sites and an anthology of articles, it represents the work of a small army of about 100 contributors, including Paul Hawken, Vandana Shiva, Starhawk and David Holmgren. It includes projects in climates as diverse as the Dead Sea Valley in Jordan and the Amazon rainforest, inner cities as well as remote corners of Mongolia.

It also highlights permaculture training, which has been held in approximately 100 countries around the world. One innovative program in Israel, called the Bustan Project, brings Arabs, Jews and Bedouins together for courses. The courses combine teaching practical techniques of natural building, water catchment and traditional agriculture with peace building.

“It is connected to peace, in that we work the land together instead of fighting about it,” says Petra Feldman, a resident of Hava ve Adam, the permaculture center that hosted the training that I and my co-author Louis Fox attended in 2008. Israeli youth work at the center for a year as an alternative to military service. Petra’s husband, Chaim Feldman, began a collaboration with Palestinian farmers involving traditional agriculture. They have shared irrigation techniques, drought-resistant heirloom seeds and other permaculture practices that enable farmers with restricted land access to grow more intensively in smaller spaces.

“The closest thing in the world to the principles of permaculture I’m learning in this course are the principles of traditional Bedouin culture,” said Haled Eloubra, a Bedouin community leader and green architect attending the course.

Permaculture integrates traditional knowledge with appropriate technology, linking ancient and modern approaches. As an international movement, it reconnects native people with ancestral knowledge, as well as giving industrialized societies a framework to meet their needs more sustainably. Some call this approach permaculture. For many traditional people, as Nahuat-Mayan activist Guillermo Vasquez told me, “It’s a practice, a way of life.”

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

Vasquez founded Indigenous Permaculture, an organization that partnered with residents of Pine Ridge, an Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota. There they developed a Wounjupi garden, a local food-security project using ecological principles. He sees permaculture movement as a form of cultural resistance and a healing process.

“This is the way to create a real Green Revolution and make change,” he told me.

Pine Ridge, long associated with native resistance, holds a unique place in the history of indigenous struggle. The reservation is among the most impoverished in the United States, with an adolescent suicide rate four times the national average, unemployment around 80% and many residents without access to energy or clean water. Although there is a good deal of agricultural production on the reservation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only a small percentage of tribal members directly benefit from it.

Local leader Wilmer Mesteth has been leading the development of the Wounjupi and systems for water catchment, grey water recycling, seed saving and composting. The organizers see local food security as a path to confront poverty and health issues such as diabetes, and have developed a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A greenhouse has been built, medicinal plants are being cultivated and workshops are held for residents about perennial agriculture techniques. The harvest provides enough produce to give to families and elders in the community, and even share at an elders gathering in Montana.

Another advantage of biodiverse systems is they are more resilient. While grasshoppers destroyed many other crops on the reservation one season, the Wounjupi garden saw little damage, probably as a result of the permaculture technique of planting flowers that attract beneficial insects that prey on pests. “We’re seeing a major change in the soil due to the addition of organic matter,” Vasquez said. “It’s much darker and richer, and the vegetables are starting to grow really well.”

This kind of soil building also has larger positive implications. In her book, “The Soil Will Save Us,” Kristin Ohlson suggests that the ancient partnership between plants and soil microorganisms that created our planet offers hope for pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sinking it back into the ground. She documents a huge increase in the numbers of “soil farmers” within organic agriculture, and beyond.

In my part of the world in Northern California, soil farmers in the heart of Oakland are transforming soil tainted by decades of intense industrial pollution, building local community and creating social change at the same time. Oakland’s food security movement has brought fresh organic produce to what was a desert of liquor and convenience stores, and locals are raising bees that pollinate urban crops as well as provide local sources of honey.

The diversity of insect and bird pollinators is crucial to agriculture, and farmers require healthy ecosystems to grow food. Our choices about how our food is grown connect directly to issues of biodiversity, climate change and the survival of natural ecosystems across the globe. Organic and permaculture farms are significantly better at preserving agro-ecosystem biodiversity than conventional farming. With such systems, the number of plant, bird and insect species can often be 50% greater, so developing biodiverse systems should be a high priority. When we choose to eat locally-grown and organic foods, we are giving energy to a diverse and vibrant international cultural movement that is revolutionizing the food system.

And they taste better too.

Main photo: Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discussing permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

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Yellow crookneck squash. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

It’s the end of a long, wet and unusually cool summer in the Virginia mountains. And, to my joy, the water-logged soil yields more than the mildew spreading like talcum powder across my prolific yellow summer squash (Cucurbita pepo), also called crookneck squash.

About an hour before dinner, I pick half a dozen of the young, fresh squash — all no longer than 6 inches. Tiny hairlike spines on the broad leaves of the plant prick my fingers as I grab the first squash I see.

Mother Nature is ingenious in ensuring that species propagate by developing defense mechanisms such as strong odors or prickly thorns. With summer squash, the leaves’ spines are a good indication of freshness, which is useful when choosing produce at the supermarket. Also, this variety’s thin, fragile neck makes it somewhat difficult to ship commercially, so summer squash available at groceries have been bred to have shorter, wider “crooks” than the variety I grow in my garden.

Botanists believe squash, like the ones growing in my garden, originated in Mexico about 10,000 years ago. Food historians credit Christopher Columbus, who voyaged to the New World in 1492, with helping to spread squash to the Old World by returning with squash seeds. Images of various New World squashes started to appear in Italian paintings around 1515.

Today, almost every cuisine in the world features squash — members of the gourd (Cucurbitaceae) family — in one form or another, be it the thicker-skinned varieties like pumpkin or the thinner-skinned varieties of zucchini or opo squash.

Summer squash a Southern staple

Yellow summer squash holds a special place in the repertoire of many Southern cooks in America. There’s the popular Stewed Squash and the old standby, Pickled Squash.

But another beloved Southern dish captured my fancy years ago: Squash Casserole, a gratin-like dish. Some cooks call it Baked Squash or Squash Pudding. Most recipes include a topping made from a sleeve of crushed buttery Ritz crackers, a quick answer to the problem of not having buttery bread crumbs on hand.

A favorite side dish at Southern family reunions and other celebrations, Squash Casserole comes in about as many shapes as there are cooks who make it.

Mary Randolph, linked to the Virginia gentry as a relative of Thomas Jefferson, wrote “The Virginia Housewife” (1824), considered the first cookbook of the American South by many culinary historians. Her cookbook influenced others, such as “The Kentucky Housewife” and “The Carolina Housewife.” And, just like Randolph, I usually like to keep things simple when it comes to summer squash. Translation: I never have Ritz Crackers, or bread crumbs for that matter, on hand.

Squash dish, made simple

In one of her two recipes for squash, Winter Squash, Randolph advocates boiling it and topping it with butter, simple enough treatments. I grew up eating yellow squash boiled with big chunks of bacon thrown in, a somewhat similar recipe.

For my dinner, I cut the squashes into small cubes, salt them, leave them in a colander for about 30 minutes to drain, and then rinse off the salt and dry the cubes. After heating a small amount of olive oil at high heat in my cast-iron skillet, I cook the pieces of squash until the cut edges brown. A twist of black pepper and a dash of smoked paprika and this side dish stands up well to most main courses, meat-based or vegetarian.

In the chill of late summer nights, I long for the filling heft of a casserole. Randolph’s other squash recipe, Squash or Cimlin — cimlin or “cymling” is an old-fashioned word for pattypan squash. Randolph’s “The Virginia Housewife” gives the following recipe, a somewhat close relative to modern Squash Casserole:

Gather young squashes, peel, and cut them in two; take out the seeds, and boil them till tender; out them into a colander, drain off the water, and rub them with a wooden spoon through the colander; then put them into a stew-pan, with a cupful of cream, a small piece of butter, some pepper, and salt, stew them, stirring very frequently until dry. This is the most delicate way of preparing squashes.

One interesting note: Randolph makes no mention of bacon fat in this recipe.

Yellow crookneck squash. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Yellow crookneck squash. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Bacon and squash, a tasty combination

One thing to remember about traditional Southern cooking is that pork, and pork fat, plays a starring role. History and circumstances dictate much of tradition when it comes to food habits. The American South is no different from France that way. Pigs fared better than cattle in the warm and humid Southern climate, fending for themselves in the forests. Pork could also be preserved better when salted and smoked as ham and bacon.

The following recipe incorporates a number of cooking techniques mentioned in “The Virginia Housewife” yet honors modern tastes and preparation methods. What remains constant is the delicate taste of the squash.

And the tang of bacon.

Yellow Squash au Gratin, Southern Style

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 side-dish servings

Ingredients

  • Butter or shortening for greasing
  • 5 to 6 cups yellow summer squash, cut into ½-inch slices
  • 4 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or light olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely minced
  • 3 tablespoons green bell pepper, finely minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
  • 1 cup grated Jack cheese
  • ¾ cup sour cream
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 1-quart, oven-proof baking dish with butter or shortening.
  2. Place the sliced squash in a medium saucepan; add water to cover. Add about ½ tablespoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Bring squash to a boil; cook for 10 minutes until just barely tender to the poke of a sharp knife. Drain squash until almost all the water is out.
  3. Put the bacon into a cast-iron skillet with the 2 tablespoons of oil. Fry until bacon is crisp. Remove bacon from the skillet and drain on paper towels. Pour out all but 2 tablespoons of the remaining oil from the skillet; sauté the onion and green pepper until lightly caramelized; add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Remove from the skillet and mix with the bacon. Set aside.
  4. Add the onion mixture, cheese and sour cream to the hot squash; sprinkle in more salt and pepper to taste. Mix well with a flexible spatula. Scrape squash mixture into prepared baking dish and place in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes and then turn off heat. Serve immediately.

Notes

You may substitute zucchini for the yellow squash. Or you can combine the two if you wish.

Main photo: Yellow crookneck squash. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

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Fresh ingredients from the garden. Credit: pilipphoto

Let the ingredients speak. It is something my Nana always urged. What better time than late summer and early fall to allow your garden to dictate your menu.

If you are growing vegetables, much of the wait is over. Cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, eggplant, onions and much more are streaming in. Herbs, too, are abundant and running wild — tarragon, basil, lavender, mint, lemon balm, oregano, sage, rosemary, parsley, cilantro. The list is almost endless.

I want to hoard. I am afraid to eat it all for fear there will be no more. But I resist that instinct and step into the garden and let it speak to me. What is ripe right now? What can I preserve for the January meals? What do I want to eat and make right now with my garden bounty? And herein lies the secret — nothing is better than garden-to-table menu making and recipe creation.

Each day I peruse the garden and decide what’s for lunch or what’s for dinner. With the abundant zucchini and onions, and freshly laid chicken eggs, I whip up a simple frittata finished off with assorted herbs. It does the trick for lunch. A dinner could be a lamb burger, prepared with mint and rosemary, and served with an arugula and watermelon salad, and corn on the cob. Perhaps, I will turn tomatoes into a luscious sauce with basil and a touch of cream and serve over fettuccine. Or prepare stuffed peppers with black beans, rice and fresh herbs.

The trick is not to get bogged down with the recipe. Sometimes, if I need a little inspiration, I will page through a few cookbooks and even Google an ingredient. We are lucky to live during a time of readily available recipes. By reading several, it helps trigger creativity. I have included recipes with the hope that they serve as guides, not rules, to inspire you to discover the flavor profiles that work well together. I urge you to have at it in the kitchen. With the freshest of ingredients, you need not fear the results.

Carole Murko's Stuffed Peppers With Black Beans and Rice is inspired by garden-fresh vegetables. Credit: Carole Murko

Carole Murko’s Stuffed Peppers With Black Beans and Rice is inspired by garden-fresh vegetables. Credit: Carole Murko

How a recipe develops

The garden is producing food faster than we can eat it. Other than tomatoes, two of the most abundant crops are kale and corn. One day I had people over for dinner and didn’t have fixings for a green salad so I decided to use my kale. But kale is tough. I remembered reading that salt and lemon tenderized the kale … and the rest is history. My Corn and Kale Salad recipe was born. Simple, delicious and healthy.

Corn and Kale Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings as a side

Ingredients

  • 8 to 10 stalks of kale, stems removed and leaves cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 to 4 ears of leftover corn, kernels removed
  • 1 tablespoon minced tarragon
  • Pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Place kale in your serving bowl. Sprinkle sea salt all over kale and massage into the kale for 1 to 2 minutes. The massaging helps to tenderize the kale.
  2. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and set aside.
  3. When ready to serve, heat up butter in a skillet, add corn and sauté until warm and beginning to brown slightly. Add tarragon and then toss in with the kale.

An heirloom meal’s moment

My friend David Moore asked me to cook up a casual dinner, saying, “In the interest of this being an heirloom meal, I thought you should make corn pudding. It’s our family’s favorite heirloom food.” I said, no problem. I adapted his “non-recipe” into a workable one.

You can only imagine how surprised I was when Moore put the corn pudding on the table. I proclaimed, “Shouldn’t we wait until after the main course?” To which Moore responded, “It is part of the main course.” And I burst out laughing, admitting I thought it was dessert and I even made whipped cream to go on top.
 And boy was it delicious. This is a keeper and I was told it was better than his dad’s!

Corn Pudding

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour
Yield: 6 to 8 servings as a side

Ingredients
4 ears fresh corn shucked and cut off cob (or 3 to 4 cups frozen kernels, thawed)
4 farm fresh eggs
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup whole milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoon organic sugar
½ stick butter
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoons salt

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Butter a square 8-by-8-inch baking dish.
3. Blend all the ingredients in a food processor for about 3 to 5 minutes until corn is nicely blended while still retaining some texture. Pour into baking pan and bake until golden brown, about 35 to 45 minutes.
4. Cool and serve warm as a side or as dessert.

Tarragon Chive Pasta Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 8 servings as a side

Ingredients
1 pound tri-color rotini
¾ cup olive oil, divided; ¼ cup to toss with pasta, ½ cup for the dressing
1 cup scallions, sliced
¾ cup chives, minced
¼ cup tarragon, minced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
¼ cup champagne vinegar
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Red pepper flakes to taste

Directions
1. Cook pasta until al dente. Drain and toss in a large bowl with ¼ cup of olive oil. Cool. Add scallions, chives and tarragon.
2. Whisk together the mustard, vinegar, garlic, sugar, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Slowly add in the ½ cup of olive oil in a stream until incorporated. Pour over pasta and mix.
3. Best if pasta sits at room temperature for at least 4 hours or chills overnight. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Late Summer Roasted Heirloom Tomato Risotto

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes
Yield: 4 generous dinner servings or 6 side servings

Ingredients
1 quart cherry tomatoes, halved or 4 cups tomatoes, quartered
3 tablespoon olive oil
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, minced
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 to 2½ tablespoons of butter or olive oil (I use both, 1-plus tablespoon butter, 1-plus tablespoon of olive oil)
¾ cup of a mix of shallots and onions, chopped 
(I used 2 shallots and 1 small onion)
2 cups of Arborio rice
½ cup white wine
8 cups chicken stock
1 cup Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
 Clean and halve the cherry tomatoes. 
Toss with olive oil, garlic, basil, salt and pepper. Spread over a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
 Roast for 25 minutes.
2. While tomatoes are roasting, heat butter and oil in a large saucepan or risotto pot over medium flame. When butter is melted, add chopped shallots and onions. Sauté for 2 to 4 minutes until translucent.
3. Add Arborio rice and stir to coat thoroughly with butter and oil; continue to sauté for another minute or so. Add white wine and stir until it is completely absorbed.
4. Next, begin the process that makes risotto creamy. Add a ladle of hot chicken broth and stir constantly until it is absorbed. Repeat until most, if not all, of the broth has been used and the rice is tender but not mushy.
5. Remove from heat, add the Parmesan cheese, fold in your tomatoes (which probably came out of the oven 5 minutes or so ago) and serve immediately.

Main photo: Fresh ingredients from the garden. Credit: iStockphoto / pilipphoto

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