Posted by & filed under Food Philosophy, fruit.

asian applesauce making

“Why did you plant two?” I asked my neighbor when I came over to help pick “pear apples” from one of her two huge and overburdened Asian pear trees, which stand just six feet apart in her sunny back yard.

“Because I wanted to put up a hammock between them,” she said, “but they got so big I couldn’t do it.”

She was definitely right. The trees were stout, branches intertwining; heavily bowed, they were laden with huge, ripe fruit hanging in heavy clumps. One tree had already been mostly picked clean, but the other held hundreds more, many the size of softballs and with the blush of a sun-kissed cheek on their golden skins.

My friend Pam kicked off her flip-flops and shimmied up inside the tree, tossing fruit down to me while her ever-curious wirehair dachshund bobbed and weaved the cannonballs that rained down every time Pam reached for a new branch.  To get to what she couldn’t reach, we used an old wooden ladder and a grabber (like the kind folks with arthritis use) as we tempted gravity’s mood for some especially gorgeous prizes high up.

We ate fruit as we picked, dripping juice everywhere and raving about how fantastic they were. Sweet, crisp and incredibly juicy, they were the best I’ve ever had.   My neighbor’s fondness for calling them “pear-apples” is actually a misnomer, though, because the fruit is not actually a hybrid of pears and apples. It is a pear species in its own right — actually the world’s oldest known cultivated pear — Pyres pyrifolia, native to China, Japan and Korea.

Pam and I managed to fill eight paper grocery bags with good, solid fruit, plus two more bags of bruised fruit for her chickens and two big tubs of too-far-gone specimens for the green bin.  When we were done, we shook our heads in disbelief as we saw that half the fruit was still on the tree.

Back home, I lugged out the bathroom scale and stood on it with bags in each hand. The total for my six bags: 95 lbs of fruit.  “Good Lord,” I said aloud, “What am I going to do with 95 lbs of Asian pears?”

You aren’t likely to find Asian pear pies or jams because the fruit has such a high water content and a somewhat grainy texture. They also bruise very easily and spoil quickly, especially when they are heaped in a bag, so I knew there was just one answer: make applesauce (umm, pearsauce).

And thus began a two-day marathon of peeling, coring, chopping, simmering, mashing, jar sterilizing and hot bath canning.  I made three gallons of Asian pear sauce so perfect and sweet that it needed no sugar, no spice, no nothing. It will make wonderful holiday gifts for neighbors who didn’t get in on the picking.

Even after all the canning, though, I still had two bags of fruit left. At that point, I started pawning them off on anyone who would take them – including the Golden Gate Organics driver who showed up at my house last Tuesday! After setting aside half a dozen to eat myself, I took the last of them to Oakland’s Chabot stables for the horses, who seemed to enjoy them as much as we humans do.

Having fruit trees is a blessing, and witnessing a bumper crop like this one seems nothing short of miraculous. But it can definitely be a challenge to not let the harvest go to waste. Besides inviting folks to come pick every year, my neighbor takes fruit down to a local food bank.  The website www.AmpleHarvest.org is an easy way to find a food pantry near you that accepts homegrown produce.

If you live in the East Bay and need help harvesting fruit from your own trees, you can contact People United for a Better Life in Oakland (PUEBLO) at (510) 535-2525 or pueblo@peopleunited.org. PUEBLO staff and volunteers will harvest your trees and donate the fruit to low-income seniors in Oakland.

Because more than anything, a good harvest is a gift that is meant to be shared.

 

asian pear close

Posted by & filed under tips & tricks.

greens fanned out

 

When my neighbor D had surgery on his hip a few years back and was facing several weeks of hobbling rehab, a few of us neighbors did what neighborly folks have done for centuries when one of their own is sick or otherwise laid up. Unbidden and unannounced, we arrived bearing platters of food, cramming his fridge full of chickens and casseroles and lasagnas and soups – all things easily reheated in the microwave by a confirmed bachelor with a gimpy leg.

 

We stockpiled him with a week’s worth of hearty comfort food, but man cannot live by pot pies alone.  Or at least he shouldn’t. Thinking that perhaps D might welcome some vegetables, I made a big pot of the greens recipe that my dear friend and former neighbor Richard Brazier had passed on to me, before he himself passed on a year or so later.

 

I thought it fitting that it was a neighborhood recipe that I was sharing with D, but the hesitation and skepticism on his face when I delivered the steaming container of collard and mustard greens were unmistakable.

 

“All righty…” (awkward pause…)  “And thank you…” he said, voice rising high in a syrupy sing-song tone as he hobbled back inside with my offering.

 

“Tell me what you think!” I chirped as I waved goodbye, hoping that he would at least try them.

 

The next time I saw D, a few days later, he looked at me a bit quizzically and cocked his head. Then he grabbed my arm in a strong, you-are-going-nowhere grip and stared me down. “I don’t know how you did it,” he said, “but somehow you channeled a 92-year old black woman. I haven’t had greens like that since my great grandma when I was a little boy.”

 

And then he broke into a huge smile and gave me a tremendous hug.  To this day, it is far and away the best compliment I have ever received about my cooking.

 

The real credit goes to my friend Richard, though, who used to run Gee Bees catering in Oakland with his partner of 46 years, George. He was truly a dear of a man and I miss chatting with him over my side fence and hearing him pronounce that everything was just “wuuun-der-ful!” when you asked how he was doing.

 

When Richard taught me how to make these greens, we spent the entire evening together in his kitchen, hovering over the simmering pot as we gossiped about neighbors and sipped seemingly bottomless vodka tonics, his favorite.  I have no doubt that Richard would be pleased that I am sharing the recipe, but as far as I know, this is the first time it’s been written down.  You see, he showed me how to make the greens; we didn’t measure anything and I wrote nothing down at the time.  I’ve made dozens of pots of greens since then, and they are slightly different every time.

This is my best description of how to do it:

 

Richard Brazier’s Authentic Oaktown Greens

 

Ingredients:

Two big bunches of fresh greens w/stems, chopped

Using one bunch of collards and one of mustards works best, in my opinion, but feel free to use two bunches of collards or to throw in some kale, chard or beet greens, spinach, carrot tops — whatever you have around. At least half collards is a must, though.

 

One ham hock or shank

You can substitute a couple diced slices of bacon or some salt pork if that’s what you’ve got.  To make a vegetarian version, omit the meat but do add some extra butter, a pinch of salt and a splash of Braggs Aminos if you have it.

 

1/2 a yellow onion, chopped

 

3-4 cloves garlic, minced or crushed

 

A good blurp of Worchestershire sauce, say, a tablespoon or so

 

A heavy dash of sweet paprika

 

Pepper to taste

 

Butter and/or olive oil

 

Directions:

Put some butter and/or olive oil in a big soup pot and saute the onions and garlic on low heat along with the ham hock. When the fat starts to melt and the garlic and onions smell really good, add the Worcestershire and spices and a couple inches of water. Bring to a simmer on medium heat and then add the greens. Smash ’em down to make more room as they wilt. Simmer the greens on low for 2-3 hours, covered, stirring occasionally.

 

Don’t stray too far from the pot, because you need to keep a close eye on the water level.  If you add too much water it will be too soupy, but be careful not to let the bottom burn dry. That will ruin the whole pot. Add water a half-cup at a time as needed. Conversely, if there’s too much water, take the lid off for a while and let it cook down a bit.

 

When the greens are cooked to your liking (I am not sure it is even possible to overcook greens), pull the pork piece out and trim off the fat and dispose of it. Save any usable bits of meat and chop them super small and add them back into the pot before serving.

 

Whatever you do, though, don’t waste the liquid at the bottom of the pot; it is called “potlikker” and it is awesome when sopped up by cornbread! Make sure there is some potlikker in every bowl – and yes, make sure to use bowls not plates or they will be swimming. Some folks pour the potlikker off into a glass and drink it – the original green power drink.

 

I usually cheat and make my greens in a pressure cooker in about 30 minutes instead of three hours. Here’s how: Sautee the onions and garlic with the pork in the pot, and then add the spices and one inch of water.  Add all of the greens and smash them down so you can close the lid (don’t worry, they will shrink as they cook). Put the lid on and set the heat on high. When the rocker starts chugging steadily, start timing 25 minutes and reduce the heat so it is just enough to keep the rhythm. Turn the heat off when the time is up and be sure to let the pressure diminish before opening.  Your pressure cooker may be a little different, so you might have to experiment, but that is what works in mine. (Don’t forget to add the meaty bits back into the pot!)

 

You can feed these greens to anybody who knows from greens, and even people who don’t usually like them often warm up to these.  I can’t promise that you’ll channel anybody’s grandma, but you might very well have someone pronounce that they are wuuun-der-ful!

 

greens and cornbread

Posted by & filed under Food Philosophy.

I went for a hike with my dog the other day in an undeveloped open space in the East Bay hills, one that at this time of year is graced with sweet-smelling golden grasses, sturdy coastal live oaks and a surprising variety of flowering perennials, despite the lack of recent rain.

Over the years, my neighbors and I have become volunteer stewards of the park, forming work parties to groom the trails, pick up trash and remove non-native invasive species, so I took it a bit personally when I rounded a bend in the trail and came upon a big, spiky cardoon plant, defiantly thriving there on the hillside despite our repeated efforts to kill it over the past few years.

Most folks wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to say if asked to describe what cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) looks like, but they would probably recognize its widely cultivated sister, the globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus). Yep, the leathery thistle plant my neighbors and I so valiantly try to eradicate is the wild version of the same species that we love to turn into creamy dips and hot fritters.

Realizing this set me to wondering: What makes one variety of the plant an undesirable weed and the other welcome at our dinner tables?

Cardoon can be eaten just like an artichoke, though it’s the leaf stems that are considered the best part, as opposed to the flower buds that we prefer on artichokes. Native to the Mediterranean, where it was domesticated in ancient times, cardoon was described as early as the fourth century BC by the Greek philosopher and naturalist, Theophrastus, who wrote about them being grown for food in Italy and Sicily.

It was a staple in Greek and Roman diets, and — despite the undeniable global popularity of the artichoke — cardoon is still cultivated in parts of Europe and northern Africa today. Its flower buds are eaten in some regions, but the leaf stalks, which look like large celery stalks, are more widely braised as a vegetable or to make an artichoke-flavored stock. In Italy and Spain, cardoon is the basis for traditional holiday meals and national dishes, and in Portugal, it’s used as a source of vegetable rennet for cheese production.

In the U.S., though, cardoon is rarely sold and seldom eaten (aside from a dish of battered and friend stems traditionally served at St. Joseph’s altars in New Orleans during Lent). Cardoon was once a common vegetable here, though. It was cultivated in the gardens of colonial America and only fell from favor when French immigrants brought artichokes with them to Louisiana in the early 1800s. The first commercial artichoke fields were planted there, but they didn’t do so well, and by the late 1800s the Spanish had established productive fields in the Monterey area, where we still find them today. Some 99% of artichokes in the U.S. are now grown in California, making them a key player in the state’s agricultural economy.

So why did cardoon fall out of favor and why did artichokes take over? If this were a chapter in The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan would say that the globe artichoke was better than the cardoon at manipulating humans to keep it alive and to spread its genes. To wit: Artichoke plants are larger (up to 6.5 feet tall) and less spiny than cardoon, and they have thicker leaf stems and larger flowers, all characteristics favored by humans for bigger crop yields and easier harvesting, processing and eating.

So favor them we do, and in a big way.

According to the Agricultural Marketing Research Center, in the U.S., “total production in 2012 was 110 million pounds, up from the previous two years, and the crop was valued at $53.7 million.” That sounds like a lot of artichokes, but we actually only rank 8th in global cultivation, with the rest of the world – from Europe to the Mideast to Latin America – producing some 1.32 million tons of the prickly things. (Italy is the top producer, with a yield that is nearly ten times what the U.S. grows).

Since it appears that the whole world is crazy for artichokes, it would be easy to assume that the chokes have triumphed over cardoon in the battle for human-assisted survival of the species. But we can’t count cardoon out just yet.

Although shunned in favor of its more palatable sister, cardoon has nonetheless attracted recent attention as a possible source of biodiesel. The oil extracted from cardoon seeds (ironically known as artichoke oil) is similar to safflower or sunflower oil and is most commonly used for cooking. But some folks see a bigger potential. Much bigger.

Cardoon is poised to become the feedstock for the world’s first biorefinery that will produce fuels, power and chemicals from biomass by converting a petrochemical plant in Porto Novo, Sardinia from traditional fossil fuel processing to bio-based productions.

Cardoon will provide the biomass and oils for biodegradable plant-based plastics, and possibly fuel products as well. The company, Matrica, is a joint venture of Italy’s largest chemical company, Polimeri Europa, and Novamont, a global leader in biodegradable plastics. The forward-looking project – worth some 500-million Euros — is slated to open this Fall.

It seems that although we long ago favored the artichoke to grace our tables, cardoon also may have found a way to manipulate humans for its long-term survival – and offer a new twist on the food vs. fuel debate.

Posted by & filed under Book Review, Food Philosophy.

Back to the Land in the City

When I’m not writing blogs for Golden Gate Organics, I make my living – in part anyway – by researching and compiling nonfiction anthologies for high school students. I’ve been doing it for almost 10 years, and it’s a pretty great gig because I get to learn about each topic in depth as I research possible articles to include in the books. When I pull the material together and write an introduction, it’s kind of like doing a monster book report or a term paper.  As a result, I know far more about such topics as solar storms, WikiLeaks, uranium mining, drunk driving and e-waste (among other random things) than most people would ever care to know.  Anyway, the title that I’m currently working on is Urban Farming, a topic that I suggested to the publishers myself a year or so ago.

 

Urban agriculture is really hot right now, what with the whole urban homesteading movement taking off like wildfire nationwide, and my own interest was driven by the fact that I’ve got a little  (tiny) plot in a community garden, and that I keep bees, make plum wine from my tree and do some home canning. A friend likes to call me “Pioneer Woman,” but I’m nowhere near as pioneer as my neighbors, who keep backyard chickens, roast their own coffee beans and make lovely soaps and some very good beer.

 

We all live, mind you, in a residential neighborhood in East Oakland, so the pioneering – such as it is — is of quite limited scale. But we’re still part of what has become a bona fide urban agriculture movement over the past decade. And although the Bay Area was at the forefront of the trend, urban farming has now definitely gone mainstream.

 

An urban farm, it turns out, can take many forms, but a definition from one of the books in my research stack seems to sum up the idea pretty well: “An urban farm is an intentional effort by an individual or community to grow its capacity for self-suffriciency and well-being through the cultivation of plants and animals.”

 

The most common manifestation of the urban farm idea, of course, is still the community garden, but a surprising number of other initiatives – from CSA (community supported agriculture) farms, to public space orchards to nonprofit, educational or actual for-profit urban farms — are springing up in the midst of cities nationwide.

 

And it seems there are just as many motivations for urban agriculture as there are models:  getting closer to one’s food, promoting slow food and “locavore” eating, increasing sustainability, boosting local economies, building self sufficiency, promoting community, reclaiming and revitalizing neglected inner-city spaces, increasing food security, reconnecting with cultural traditions, improving public health, providing job training and rehabilitation. And more.

 

I’ve just begun digging (pun intended) into my big stack of research material, but a few titles have really stood out and impressed me so far. Here’s a brief look at a few books you might like to check out if you are interested in learning more about the urban farming movement, the various forms it is taking, and the positive changes it has the power to effect:

 

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer  – in which the author and her boyfriend move to Oakland, rent an apartment, take over the vacant lot next door and turn it into a squat garden, complete with chickens, rabbits and pigs that they slaughter for meat. This book has been out for a few years now, so I’m a little late to the party, but learning about the early days of the now infamous Ghost Town Farm in West Oakland is fascinating, and the book is something of a love letter to Oakland besides. (Novella Carpenter, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. New York: Penguin Press, 2009.)

 

Breaking Through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revival – in which essays and photographs lovingly document twelve urban farming projects from around the country. From profiles of community gardens in Seattle and Denver, to for-profit farms in Kansas City and on Brooklyn rooftops, to the transformative Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz, this book explores a wide variety of successful urban agriculture models and settings. The stories are varied and inspiring, and the photos left me with the feeling that seeing is believing what is possible. (David Hanson and Edwin Marty, Breaking Through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revival. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.)

 

The Urban Food Revolution: Changing the Way We Feed Cities – in which a somewhat wonkish former city planner from Vancouver critiques the industrial food system and then makes the case for urban agriculture by dissecting problems and quantifying viable solutions. Which is to say, this book is chock full of both public policy points and statistics to further the arguments for, and the successful operation of, urban agriculture initiatives. (Peter Ladner, The Urban Food Revolution: Changing the Way We Feed Cities. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society, 2011.)

 

Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution – in which urban agriculture is presented through a more global lens. After explaining how the industrial food system contributes to a global food and health crisis, the chapters are broken up to spotlight urban farming activities in communities around the world: Paris, London, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, and Cuba.  I was pleased to discover that many of these places (in Europe and Cuba) have long, historic traditions of urban farming, which just goes to show that everything old is new again.  (Jennifer Cockrall-King, Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution. New York: Prometheus, 2012.)

 

The thing that struck me most about these books, however, is their unabashed optimism that urban farming can not only change our relationship with food, but that it can help heal our planet and our communities as well. I was left with the strong impression that urban agriculture is not just about the future of food, but about the future of the world.

Posted by & filed under Food Philosophy, produce report, Uncategorized.

We talked about juicing last time, so I thought I’d see about the new apple juice that Corey keeps talking about. Bernie’s Best Organic Apple Cider has been available in the GGO boxes for a few weeks now, so I ordered two bottles this past week to see what all the fuss is about.

Honestly, my first impression was that the bottles were pretty small (10 oz for $3), but then I opened a bottle of Bernie’s Autumn Blend and took a little sip:

Oh, wow.

Another sip.

Damn. That. Is. Good.

Sweet but not too sweet, complex but not confusing and with a strong nose of crisp apples, Bernie’s Autumn Blend reminded me of nothing so much as its namesake — autumn itself — just like the label says.
Duly impressed, I opened the bottle of Bernie’s Gravenstein Cider to compare flavors and was gobsmacked all over again. I knew immediately that I had never tasted Gravenstein juice before, and it was a delightful surprise. It was lighter than the Autumn Blend, with a sharper flavor and an almost citrusy finish. It was unmistakably rare and refreshing.

After several more small sips of each, I came to the conclusion that I can’t choose which of the two I like better. Bernie’s is far and away the best apple juice I have tasted since I was a grade schooler on a fieldtrip to “Apple Hill” (off Highway 50, East of Placerville), where we drank Dixie cups of cider straight out of a massive old press and delighted in the sound of our sneakers sticking to the juice coated floor.

It is hard to compete with romanticized childhood memories about Apple Hill, but honestly, Bernie’s cider is even better. This is clearly not juice to be gulped down by toddlers with a sippy cup (though they will love the Autumn Blend). This is grown-up juice to be savored and reveled in, a few sips at a time.

My two little bottles lasted me three days, and I found myself taking smaller and smaller sips each time in order to make the experience last as long as possible. If there had been a gallon of it, its preciousness would have given way to gluttony and it wouldn’t have seemed so special, so suddenly those bottles don’t seem too small at all.

Yes, I do believe that Bernie’s little bottles of cider may well be the perfect juice sippy cup for grown ups.

PS: The formal difference between apple cider and apple juice, I have just learned, is that cider is not filtered and is therefore highly perishable, while products labeled apple juice are simply cider that is filtered to make it last longer in stores.

Posted by & filed under Food Philosophy, tips & tricks, Uncategorized.

Juice people (aka: “juicers”) have a reputation for being rather evangelical about promoting the benefits of drinking, rather than eating, one’s fresh fruits and vegetables.

Since juice contains most of the vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients found in whole produce — minus all the bulky fiber that has to be digested — the theory is that juice gives the digestive system a rest and allows the body to better absorb nutrients.

Believers swear that juicing optimizes energy and mental acuity, boosts the immune system, increases longevity, promotes weight loss, detoxes the body, aids digestion, clears up bad skin, banishes migraines and even helps fight cancer.

That’s a pretty tall order, to be sure. But despite the recent cult-like popularity of home juicing and juice fasts for cleansing, juicing is a lot more than just a fashionable diet fad or New Age snake oil. Humans have long recognized that fruit and vegetable juices have unique healing and restorative properties, and juicing is one of the oldest dietary practices known to humankind.

All the way back in 1700 B.C., the ancient Greeks spoke about pomegranate juice as being a “love potion.” Some 1500 years later, the Dead Sea Scrolls extolled the virtues of “a pounded mash of pomegranate and fig” resulting in “profound strength and subtle form.” The Ayurvedic system of medicine in ancient India was of like mind, with 5th century writings that referred to consuming “juices for medicinal purposes.”

Flash forward 16 centuries and you have recent scientific studies that show pomegranate juice improves blood flow to the heart in people with coronary artery disease; that beet juice lowers blood pressure and can boost athletic performance; and that concord grape juice supports healthy brain function in older adults with early memory decline, among other findings.

Modern science is just now beginning to quantify many centuries worth of anecdotal evidence for the benefits of juicing. For the record, though, the Mayo Clinic says that there’s no sound scientific evidence that extracted juices are healthier than what you get by eating whole fruits or vegetables.

“On the other hand,” the Mayo gurus concede, “if you don’t enjoy eating fresh fruits and vegetables, juicing may be a fun way to add them to your diet or to try fruits and vegetables you normally wouldn’t eat.”

So if you don’t like kale or parsley, for example, drinking their juices is an excellent way to add those nutrient-rich foods to your diet. It’s also a great way for those of us who do love fresh produce to get more raw foods into our diets – and a smart way to use up distressed produce that would otherwise go to the compost bin (something we’re always working on around here!)

It may very well be that a tall glass of fresh juice is a powerful elixir that will do wonders for your body, but health claims aside, the truth is that it’s a lot easier to drink four carrots, three celery sticks, two leaves of kale and an apple than it is to sit down and eat them.

Posted by & filed under tips & tricks.

I’m not sure if there’s a rule carved in stone somewhere – like not being allowed to wear white until after Memorial Day – but the solstice last week means it’s now officially summer, which thereby grants us formal permission to fire up the barbecue.

Not that we don’t grill in the middle of December at my house, mind you, but there’s a big difference between winter squash and pork chops cooked in the rain and sweet corn, peppers and fresh salmon grilled under the lingering evening sun with a cold beer in hand. Aaahh… (Although admittedly, the drizzle earlier this week made it feel more like the former than the latter.) In any case, summer is indeed officially here, and it’s time to partake in the ancient ritual of consuming food prepared over an open flame.

Vegetables aren’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when talking about barbecue, so it’s no surprise that a lot of folks have limited experience cooking them on the grill. So I will tell you a secret: The number one tip to successfully BBQ vegetables is to never walk away from them. Veggies cook rather quickly and need frequent turning, and if you aren’t careful they can char up with even a few moments of inattention.

The other big trick is to have a squirt bottle of water handy. I liberally mist my veggies whenever I turn them because it keeps them from drying out and it introduces a little steam to the cooking process. There is also the issue of flare-ups, and the squirt bottle is invaluable for knocking those down right away.

Vegetables cooked on the grill taste great, and the fresh flavors really pop out, especially if you don’t do much to them beforehand. As a general rule, all I ever do is toss veggies with olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Asparagus, carrots, onions, cherry tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, mushrooms, zucchini and other summer squashes – all of them grill up great with just a little olive oil, salt and pepper. (For mushrooms, add a little red wine to the mixture and see how you like it … and portabellas are fantastic with a little chevre or feta melted on the gill side when they are nearly done.)

Of course, corn is the season’s headliner — the singular vegetable that screams summertime and conjures nostalgic visions of tasty barbecue all on its own. Some folks grill corn by shucking it and wrapping it in foil with a little butter. It’s pretty hard to mess it up that way, but somehow it just doesn’t taste authentic to me, like the good stuff you get at the county fair. That’s because corn on the midway is almost always grilled in the husk, which steams it and makes it taste smoky at the same time. It’s actually pretty easy to do:

Start by pulling the husks back (but not off!) and remove the silk. Then put the husks back in place and soak the ears in water for at least 30 minutes. If you want, you can pull the husk aside again and brush the kernels with olive oil or butter before putting it on the grill. Cook over medium heat and turn the ears several times so no one side gets overly scorched, about 15 minutes. When it’s done, you can peel back the husk and use it as a handle as you walk around and eat it– just like at the fair!

The other summer grilling treat that I look forward to every year is stone fruits, which (like corn) have already started arriving in the weekly boxes. Yes, I am talking about fruit on the barbie! It may not be common practice, but peaches and nectarines are absolutely amazing grilled because it caramelizes the sugars in the fruit. Just cut them in half, remove the stone and brush both sides with a little olive oil before grilling for a couple minutes on each side. (You can do the same thing with pineapple.)

I like to sprinkle mine with cayenne for a zing that works really well with the sweet, warm fruit, but many people use brown sugar, cinnamon, or grated coconut or ginger if they want a topper instead. However you go about it, grilling fresh fruit for dessert is a great way to wind up any barbecue –- no matter what the calendar might say about the beginning of summer or wearing white.

Posted by & filed under organic produce, tips & tricks.

Ask three different people how to keep fruits and veggies fresh when you can’t use them right away and you’re likely to get five different answers. Everybody has their own methods for managing produce, and – truth be told – some of us get downright defensive when other folks suggest that their way might be better.

When I was little, I used to marvel that my grandma spent so much time prepping her produce right after she brought it home from the store. She made a whole long ritual of it. She carefully leafed her greens and trimmed off bad spots, carrot tops and whatever else she wouldn’t be using. Then she washed everything thoroughly and patted it dry with paper towels. Finally, she put it in Tupperware and popped it the fridge, where it would keep crisply for a week or more. For radishes, celery sticks and baby carrots, she floated them in a container of water – something I still do.

My grandma had a system that worked for her, and I’m pretty sure she would have scoffed at the notion that it should have been done differently. But in all fairness, that’s because she knew what she was doing. If you wash and store things properly in the first place, wiltage, spoilage and mold are a lot less likely to happen. Here are a few important rules of thumb:

• Washing produce first before putting it away not only gets rid of dirt (and pesticides on non-organic foods), it gives the items a well-hydrated start for their life in the fridge.

• When you store veggies in the crisper, poke holes in the plastic bag if they are in one. It allows moisture to escape and it slows spoilage.

• Store fruit separately from vegetables, especially apples, which release a chemical called ethylene that promotes spoilage.

• Onions and potatoes should both be kept in a cool, dry place, but never together. Potatoes draw moisture from onions and will lead to Mr. Potato Head science experiments surprisingly quickly.

• There are two schools of thought for bunches of herbs and leafy greens. Some folks swear they keep best in a glass of water in the fridge, with or without a plastic bag over the top. The other standby method is to dampen a paper towel, wrap the herbs or greens and put them in a Ziploc in the crisper. Either method works well; it just depends on what you prefer (or more probably what your grandmother did!). Note: If you are avoiding plastic bags in the kitchen, you can use a damp flour-sack kitchen towel to wrap your produce instead.

• If something has been around for a while and you know you still won’t be getting to it soon, do some grooming every couple days. Trim off bad spots and spoiling green tops, snip stem bottoms, change the water or replace the damp paper (or cloth) towel.

• For fruit, consider freezing if you think it will spoil before being used. Berries, cherries, mangoes, stone fruits and even bananas all do just fine in the freezer, especially if their destiny is a morning smoothie. Just make sure to trim, de-pit and peel everything as you like it first.

Using everything without having a bunch of stuff go wilty is one of the main challenges of having a weekly delivery box, and it’s inevitable that despite our best efforts sometimes the greens will look like they are on death’s door and those forgotten rainbow carrots will turn rubbery. What to do?

Two words: ice water.

It is truly astonishing the way that even badly wilted veggies can be revived by soaking them in a bowl of ice water for a couple hours, or even overnight. It rehydrates the plant cells and perks things right back up. It works on lettuces, kale and other greens, carrots, beets, cucumbers, radishes, herbs, green onions – you name it. A cold plunge won’t resuscitate things that are too far gone, of course, but it works more often than not and it’s a great way to help cut back on fresh produce waste.

Hmmm….I wonder if my grandma knew that trick?

Posted by & filed under Book Review, Food Philosophy.

When I heard New York Times reporter Michael Moss talking about his new book — Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us — on NPR a couple months ago, I was stunned by a simple realization: my palate has been deliberately manipulated, and the things I sometimes crave are not necessarily of my own natural liking. I had always assumed it was just a sign of poor willpower that I occasionally succumb to cravings for foods that I know are unhealthy, unwholesome or just plain gross on general principle (an ice-cold Coke, shelf-stable Ranch dressing or those evil orange Cheetos puffs, for example). The NPR interview was jarring, but it also made me incredibly curious: why do I crave those tastes when most of the time I crave healthy, fresh foods? And just how exactly do they get me to want it in the first place?

In Salt, Sugar, Fat, food journalist Moss chronicles the rise of the processed food industry over the past four decades and explains how by finely titrating (and steadily increasing) the levels of salt, sugar and fat in everything from pasta sauce to cookies to frozen vegetables, neuroscience and chemistry now play as big a role as marketing does to drive not only profit and consumption, but the national obesity epidemic as well.

Drawing from industry documents and insider interviews, Moss picks the industry apart by examining tactics such as marketing that promotes false benefits (this cereal helps kids perform better in school!), targeting the “heavy users” that carry a brand, (the top 20% of Coca Cola drinkers consume 80% of the product), and the sophisticated methods by which the processed food giants scientifically calibrate measures of enjoyment to devise products that are irresistible.

Forget focus groups and user opinion panels. Today’s consumer food testers get brain MRIs while tasting products with various formulations so researchers can understand exactly what precise effect each ingredient is having. The purpose of it all is to find the “bliss point,” the point at which the brain is optimally happy about what it is experiencing.

By manipulating the ratios of salt, sugar and fat to deliver optimum pleasure to the brain, the food giants found they could hook consumers on the chemical experience in much the same way the tobacco companies did with nicotine. Exactly like that, in fact. To wit, from 1988 to 2007, Marlboro-making tobacco giant Phillip Morris owned Kraft Foods – purveyor of the perfectly plastic and impossibly melty “cheese food product” Velveeta and the sodium and fat-laden Lunchables, among other massively popular but unhealthy brands.

But fresh from the huge public relations disaster of the massive tobacco industry lawsuits and with mounting public concern about processed foods and healthy eating in the early 2000s, the folks at Phillip Morris were in the perfect position to see the obesity epidemic heading for Kraft like a Mack (and cheese) truck.

“As Philip Morris came under pressure for nicotine and cigarettes, it eventually started looking at the food divisions in light of the emerging obesity crisis,” writes Moss. “And there were moments in these internal documents where Philip Morris officials were saying to the food division, ‘You guys are going to face a problem with salt, sugar, fat in terms of obesity of the same magnitude, if not more than [what] we’re facing with nicotine right now. And you’ve got to start thinking about this issue and how you’re going to deal with that.’ ”

So deal with it they did. Or at least they tried to. One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is Moss’ narrative of how Kraft broke ranks with the processed food industry and proactively donned the mantle of corporate responsibility for obesity. In 2003, Kraft stepped up and genuinely worked to change the direction the company was going. It created an anti-obesity team and reformulated its products to reduce calories, sodium, sugar and fat. To discourage overeating, it reduced package sizes and changed its labels to show the total calories in a package, not just the notoriously obfuscatory number of calories per serving. It also set caps on the amount of salt, sugar and fat that its existing and future products could contain.

That was all perfectly heretical stuff in processed-food land, and consumers didn’t respond too favorably either. Messing with the finely honed bliss point of beloved products to make them healthier, it seems, created unmet expectations for consumers. The company’s reward for its newly found sense of conscience was declining sales, loss of investor confidence and the ultimate sell-off of Kraft in 2007.

While some of the positive changes that Kraft initiated are still around today, a trip through the grocery store isles leaves no doubt that the processed food giants have redoubled their efforts to sell unhealthy foods that they systematically and deliberately teach people to want.

Salt, Sugar, Fat helps make sense of why so many of us who should (and DO) know better still sometimes give in to the temptation of processed foods — and why the bad food we love to hate can also be the food we secretly hate to love.

Posted by & filed under Food Philosophy, organic.

I read an article online last week about a new eating disorder that is apparently causing problems for some people. They call it “orthorexia,” and the idea is that folks become so obsessed with the wholesomeness of what they eat that they stop eating much of anything at all. The article described people eschewing not just animal products, but anything they perceive as being not righteous or pure — either because of the food itself (dairy, meat) or how it was grown or produced (GMO, nonorganic, etc). The article went on to describe, in quite dire terms, cases of extreme weight loss, vitamin deficiencies and a compulsive obsession with the content and character of one’s food. Theoretically, these are not conscious vegetarians or vegans they are talking about, but rather folks for whom healthy eating has become a clinical obsession. Nevertheless, the article definitely inferred that a “meager and unbalanced diet” of organic fruits and vegetables was the ultimate outcome of this new “disorder.”

The “ortho” prefix means straight, upright or correct (ie: orthodox), and the idea that there are wholesome foods and unclean ones has been around for centuries — think kosher and halal, the diet strictures followed by observant Jews and Muslims, respectively. While some foods are frowned upon under those systems because they come from animals with “unclean” lifestyles, many of the ancient prohibitions have to do with concerns about how a food is grown, raised, slaughtered, stored, prepared or served.
All this got me thinking about my own food choices and how I decide what is wholesome (or not) to put in my body. I have been vegetarian on and off for many years throughout my life. I even went strictly vegan for about eight months last year to see if it helped with arthritis-related joint pain (unfortunately, it didn’t). But currently I do choose to eat some meat, fish, eggs and dairy, and, like many of you, I am increasingly choosy about where those things come from.

Those of us in the Bay Area are truly blessed to have so many healthy and conscious food options available to us. Not only do we have access to certified organic fruits and vegetables from many of our local grocers, farmers markets and delivery box programs like Golden Gate Organics, but those of us who do consume meat, fish or dairy have access to some of the cleanest, healthiest and most humane beef, poultry, eggs and dairy in the country.

Without too much hassle, we have the answers to the questions: Is it GMO? Is it organic? Is it sustainable? Is it local? Is it humane? Was it grown with antibiotics or hormones? Are the eggs free-range? Is the fish wild caught? Where did it come from? Was the produce grown with respect for the earth as well as the workers involved? People in, say, Indiana, don’t have such easy access to those answers, and they don’t have our plethora of options, either. In that context, though, our choices here in the Bay Area do beg the questions:
Am I orthorexic because I won’t eat the super-cheap eggs from Costco?
Am I orthorexic because I won’t eat nonorganic strawberries bought from the sweet Latina woman selling them under an umbrella at my freeway exit?
Am I orthorexic because I won’t eat Tyson chicken, farmed salmon or commercially grown lettuce or cucumber?
No. Unequivocally not.

To my mind, it’s pretty easy to see Big Ag’s (and the processed food giants’) influence in creating a clinical disorder based on noncompliance with mainstream food consumption. If “normal” is to consume chemical-laden produce, feed-lot steroid meats and salty, processed convenience foods, then aberrant is to make food choices based on environmental consciousness, ethical husbandry and a deep understanding that food is truly wholesome when it nurtures not just the body but the spirit and planet as well.
All this talk has made me realize that there may finally be a word for those of us who are making such daily choices toward a healthier, cleaner and more sustainable diet: Orthotarian.
I am thankful for the opportunity to be one.