Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Livin' in the Blurbs: Springing into Action

Pssssst…don't tell anyone, but despite dire predictions of blizzards and storms, the daffodils are coming up around the neighborhood, trees are beginning to blossom and spring peas are being planted in gardens. Another sure sign of spring is the plethora of classes being offered at locales around the city for everything from urban beekeeping to gardening in small spaces to pruning trees to making cheese at home (a cheesemaking class at Kookoolan Farms, above). And adults don't get to have all the fun…there are classes for kids, too, so your budding chef, chicken wrangler or worm composter can get in on the action. All this and more for your spring edification can be found on the GoodStuffNW calendar in the column on the left, so take a couple of minutes to scroll down through the (extensive!) list. I guarantee you'll find something for yourself or someone you know!

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One of my favorite organizations in the city is Zenger Farm, and all during March you have an opportunity to eat and shop and have a percentage of your purchases benefit this urban farm. Why should you care? Because on 16 acres along the Springwater Corridor (10 acres of wetland; 6 acres of an organic farm) they train and support immigrant farmers to raise and sell their crops at the nearby Lents International Farmers' Market, bring area students to the farm for tours and hands-on classes, plus educate the larger community on sustainable food systems and environmental stewardship. If this sounds worthy to you, mark your calendars for the following dates:
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There's an oft-repeated saw that farmers' markets are just outdoor shopping malls for elitist foodies. Well, I'm here to tell you that's a big fat lie. Many, if not most, of our local farmers' markets have programs using grant funds from businesses like New Seasons Market to provide matching dollars for customers paying with SNAP (food stamps) cards. (This year New Seasons handed out grant awards ranging from $300 to $10,000 to 25 neighborhood farmers' markets.) What's really terrific for the SNAP recipients is that the tokens they get (above left) are nearly identical to the ones that other customers receive, taking the embarrassment factor out of their transactions. “Since the SNAP match program with New Seasons Market began in 2009, the Lents International Farmers Market (LIFM) has distributed over $8,000 in matched dollars, providing hundreds of underserved East Portland residents with access to fresh, healthy food,” said Laleña Dolby, Director of Development of Friends of Zenger Farm, a partner in LIFM. “In 2012, Zenger Farm will give at least $4,500 in matched SNAP funds, which will increase the number of families who can put healthy food on their tables as well as provide immediate support to emerging and immigrant farmers and vendors who sell at our market.” Amen.

Photo of tokens by Sarah Gilbert.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Farm in Winter, Warmth for the Soul

Year-round farming in the Willamette Valley is not for the faint of heart. But let's face it, there's not much chance of getting frostbite—most likely the worst that could happen is getting soaked and cold if you haven't got your Helly overalls, a waterproof jacket and a good pair of boots.

Anthony on the gator: do not get in this man's way.

More and more valley farmers are discovering the benefits of year-round farming with the concomitant benefit of year-round income. Many use row covers and hoop houses to extend their growing seasons, evidenced by the abundance—well, seven and counting—of winter farmers' markets in the metro area. National interest in all-season farming is growing, as well, with even the august pages of the New York Times trumpeting accomplishments like those of Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch of Four Seasons Farm in southern Maine (on roughly the same latitude as Oregon).

Beef tongue with hominy ready to warm up some cold bellies.

Of course there are sturdier sorts, and here I'm thinking of the likes of Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm, who prefer to grow crops that thrive without cover in the field in our soggy winters. They look for seeds from varieties that are already acclimated to NW winters, and have adapted others through careful seed selection.

Linda munching on some arugula fresh from the field. Yum!

I've had the privilege of spending some time on their farm on an occasional Friday before market, bagging beans and polenta inside and harvesting cabbage and chicory outside. While my version of "helping" tends to be more in the vein of "willing," Anthony and Carol are kind to let me stumble through some minor chores.

One of the best parts, though, is when we break for lunch, often supplied by the far more skilled farmhand and cook, Linda Colwell, who has been helping out at Ayers Creek for several years. Her recipe below for a superb beef tongue with hominy (top photo, with early broccoli) was a dish she shared recently.

Chile and Tomato Braised Tongue with Hominy
From Linda Colwell

Hearty laughter, a recording of Ruth Draper and a soul warming, rib-sticking lunch at Ayers Creek Farm was a well-rounded recovery from a morning of harvesting chicory.

For the curing:
1 beef tongue
4 qts. water
3 c. kosher salt
2 c. brown sugar
2 bay leaves
10 crushed juniper berries
10 crushed peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
1 Tbsp. mustard seeds

For the sauce:
1 qt. tomato sauce
4 ancho chiles
4 pasilla chiles
4 guajillo chiles
3 c. boiling water
Cilantro, finely chopped, for garnish
1 lb. corn kernels, such as Roy’s Calais Flint corn from Ayers Creek Farm
2 Tbsp. pickling lime

To brine and cook the tongue: Bring the water, salt, sugar, and spices to a boil and allow to cool overnight in the refrigerator. Thoroughly rinse tongue and place it and the brine in glass or plastic container large enough for the tongue to fit completely submerged. Refrigerate for 5 days.

Remove the tongue from the brine, rinse under cold water and place it in a pot. Cover the tongue with fresh water and simmer until it is tender, about 2 hours. Remove the tongue from the poaching liquid and, when cool, peel the rough skin off the tongue. Place the tongue in a cast iron enameled covered pot, add the chile and tomato sauce, and braise in a low, 250° oven for 2 hours.

To prepare the chile and tomato sauce: Cut open the chile peppers with a pair of scissors, remove the seeds and stems and break the chiles into smaller pieces. Next, lightly toast the chile peppers in an iron skillet,  then transfer to a bowl, cover with boiling water and soak for 20 minutes. When the peppers are soft, puree them into a smooth paste and thoroughly mix with the tomato sauce.

To make the hominy: Place 1 pound of corn kernels, such as Roy’s Calais Flint from Ayers Creek Farm, in a large enamel pot with two tablespoons of pickling lime. Cover with water an inch above the corn. Bring the pot to a simmer for one hour, then turn the pan off and let sit at room temperature overnight. The next day, drain the corn and refresh under cold water, rubbing vigorously until fresh water is clear again. Cover with new water and simmer for one to two hours until the kernels are tender. Set aside.

Assembly: Mix a third of the chile and tomato sauce into the hominy and warm through. Slice the tongue and add it to the pot of hominy, napping the meat and corn with the remaining sauce. Serve with a garnish of chopped cilantro.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lucking Out at LucLac

Scheduling to meet a friend for lunch downtown is always a dance. First, there's parking. I'm an inveterate street parker, eschewing unpleasant parking structures for the challenge of finding a space nearby where I can demonstrate my superior parallel parking skills. (Me? Competitive? What makes you think that?)

Then there's the question of timing, especially if the place doesn't take reservations. And the added complication that the spot we'd picked, Luc Lac Vietnamese Kitchen, had opened recently and was still experiencing buzz overkill, which meant the potential of a long wait in line. Fortunately my friend's schedule was flexible enough to accommodate an early meeting time, so we slipped in slightly after they opened and before the noon rush.

We got to the counter and placed our order, got our number and found a table for two near the kitchen in the back with a nice view of the room. This way we got to see what was coming out of the kitchen as well as gloat about our good sense of timing as the lunch line eventually snaked its way out the door. Ha!

The menu is divided into small plates, salads, pho, vermicelli bowls, rice plates, banh mi and kitchen specialties, all outlined in terms that even a newb to the cuisine can understand, making it a good place to learn the lingo or bring nervous relatives for an introductory foray.

We opted to share some small plates rather than going for a bowl of pho, which has drawn raves, or their eponymous Luc Lac, cubes of seared beef tenderloin. The mussels (top photo), which I have a hard time not ordering if I see them on a menu, were steamed in a lemongrass/tamarind broth with mushrooms and proved how versatile this native shellfish is. Whether inflected with Indian spices, Italian herbs or Mexican chiles, mussels are uniformly heavenly as long as they're taken off the heat as soon as they pop open. But let's not get off topic.

The crispy rolls with pork, taro, jicama, carrots and noodles (above right) were light and not at all greasy, and the de rigeur dipping sauce was a nice twist on the too-sweet stuff often served. Five-spice powder flavored the deep fried chicken wings caramelized in fish sauce and garlic (left) and would be great with a house cocktail. The papaya salad was very fresh but without much character and probably the least interesting thing we ordered.

Something I really liked about this place was the fact that, for a new place with lots of buzz, it doesn't feel over-designed. The flower-shaped umbrellas hanging from the ceiling give it a fanciful feel and the large mural on one wall provides a nice backdrop, but the funky wallpaper and the 50s tuck-and-roll banquette make it more homey than toney.

Details: Luc Lac Vietnamese Kitchen, 835 SW 2nd Ave. 503-222-0047.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Monster Under the Dishwasher

It's probably time to stop calling Walker a puppy. He is, after all, closing in on the five-year mark, even though he still acts like a doofy puppy much of the time.

For instance, ever since he was just a little guy, his favorite spot in the house has been underneath the dishwasher door. The moment he hears the hinges creak as we open it to stow the odd cup or plate, he comes scrambling from the other room to dive under it. Of course, it was a lot easier for him to get under there and half of him wasn't sticking out, but to him it still provides a nice dark cave to find refuge in.

So if you come over, don't be surprised to find the dishwasher door down. There's bound to be something more substantial than dust bunnies lurking beneath it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Eggs the Color of Clementines

They're baaaaaaaaack!

It was a happy day yesterday when I went out to Big Table Farm in Gaston to pick up eggs from my friend Clare Carver…we've had to make do with store-bought (organic) eggs that can't hold a candle to the flavor and freshness of these pasture-raised beauties (left, with the "chicken bus" that Clare's husband, Brian Marcy, made).

Trying to describe the yolk from the egg she'd just poached, Clare held up a clementine next to it and said it was the closest she could come to matching its color. Creamy and rich, with a sweetness from the new grass in their pasture, these needed nothing but a pat of butter to cook them and a little salt sprinkled over the top. Heaven!

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Hungry Traveler in Palermo

A good travel experience requires having a good appetite, and contributor Jim Dixon of RealGoodFood is a sterling example of someone who knows how to travel well. A fritter aficionado, he couldn't resist when he came across a vendor with some fresh fried bits at a market in Palermo.

We only spent a few days in Palermo at the end of our trip last fall, and we were surprised how much we liked it. We stayed in a small hotel called Palazzo Pantaleo in the heart of the old city, so we could walk everywhere. La Vucceria, Palermo’s most well-known street market, has devolved into a tourist trap full of cheap junk, but there are a few others that primarily serve the Palermitani.

One is Il Capo (above), a few blocks from the Teatro Massimo (left). Known for its seafood stalls, the market stretches for several blocks through the narrow streets. Without a kitchen, I couldn’t buy much, but one of the fish vendors had cooked a few things from the day’s catch, and I munched on tuna meatballs sort of like these.

Polpette di Tonno con Fiore di Finocchio

Basically fish fritters, I make mine with leftover cooked albacore if I can, but good canned tuna works just as well. Buy local Pacific albacore canned in its own juice (and don’t drain it off!).

Flake the fish in a bowl. For each cup or so of fish (roughly a can’s worth), mix in an egg, a chopped shallot, about a tablepoon of bread crumbs, pinch of salt, and a teaspoon or so of fennel pollen (the Tuscans call it fiore, flower).

Use two soup spoons to form walnut-sized “meatballs.” I make mine more flat than round, but only because it’s a little easier than rolling them into balls in my hands. Your choice. Pan fry in extra virgin olive oil until brown.

These are good plain but also nice in a simple tomato sauce.

Photos by Jim Dixon of RealGoodFood.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Them Bones, Them Bones, Them…Lamb Bones?

There's something so basic about picking up a bone and giving it a good gnawing. Even in our proper middle-class household growing up, it was de rigeur, expected, even, that you'd pick up the bone from your steak or chicken or pork and chew off all the meaty bits. And if one of my brothers didn't do what I considered a good enough job, I was allowed to pick up their "unfinished" bone and chew on it until it was sufficiently denuded.

Marrow was a different matter, though. Perhaps I didn't inherit enough of my grandmother's Alsatian DNA, but it took till I was well into adulthood to appreciate its salty, warm smoothness spread on a thin slice of lightly toasted baguette.

The last time I bought half a lamb, instead of getting the normal leg steaks, which just haven't thrilled me in the past, I had the butcher give me 2-inch-thick slices that I could use instead of veal in ossobuco. (You can order them the same way from your favorite meat department.) An Italian braised meat dish from Milan, it was traditionally made with cinnamon and bay leaf and garnished with a gremolata of lemon, garlic, anchovies and parsley. More modern versions of ossobuco include tomatoes, carrots and celery.

After braising for around three hours in the oven, the sauce had reduced and the meat was almost falling off the bone. I served it with polenta, but in Italy it's often served with a saffron risotto (called risotto Milanese). Either way would be equally fabulous, but don't forget to spoon the marrow from your bone and either stir it into your polenta or have it with a crusty piece of bread.

And if someone at the table leaves their marrow untouched? You have my permission to grab the bone off their plate for yourself. After all, waste not, want not!

Lamb Osso Buco

3 Tbsp. olive oil
3 lbs. lamb leg steaks, cut 2" thick
1 onion, chopped fine
4 large cloves garlic, chopped fine
3 carrots, chopped in 1/4" dice
3 ribs celery, chopped in 1/4" dice
2 c. dry red wine
1 c. chicken stock
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 sprigs fresh thyme
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 325°.

Generously sprinkle the lamb steaks with salt and pepper on all sides. Place large Dutch oven over medium heat and add oil. When it shimmers, add lamb pieces to the pot and sear on all sides until well-browned. If the pan isn't large enough to do them all at once without crowding, sear in batches. When sufficiently browned, remove to plate. Reduce heat to medium and add onion and garlic to oil remaining in pot. Sauté till translucent, then add carrots and celery and sauté till tender. Add wine and stock, stirring in the tomato paste. Add lamb back into pot and bury herb sprigs between the steaks. Cover and place in oven for 2-3 hours, turning the steaks about halfway through, until the meat is ready to fall off the bone and the stock has reduced. If the pot gets too dry, add water or more chicken stock to moisten. Serve over saffron risotto or polenta. Garnish with gremolata if desired (one version here).

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Right Up There With Jimmy and Manolo

The photo above is graphic evidence of why I invested in a pair of good boots a couple of months ago. When I go out to help Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm (see post below) get ready for the Hillsdale Farmers' Market, these come in mighty handy in the muddy, wet fields while harvesting mustard greens, cabbage and chicory (below left) or picking baby broccoli and arugula for our lunch.

The snug stock keeps rain from seeping down my pants legs and into my socks, and the padded, insulated shoe keeps my toes snug as bugs. They're even comfortable enough to wear while tromping a couple of miles around our neighborhood with Walker. And when a street drain gets clogged and it's time to clear the lake that forms around it, I can wade right in without a care.

Now to find some rain pants that will be equally worthy…

Farm Bulletin: Who's Minding the Frogs?

One of the reasons that I reprint the marvelous essays that Anthony Boutard sends to his market mailing list is because of his ability to capture the ineffable quality of the land and the creatures that live on it, creatures that he and his wife Carol have worked diligently to bring back to Ayers Creek Farm. His keen eye, his wit and his passion for the farm, as well as his concern for its well-being, as expressed in this essay, give glimpses into a world so close by but that we rarely hear about.

Fourteen years ago this month, we made an offer on the 144 acres that has become Ayers Creek Farm. We followed the excellent advice of Cato the Censor regarding the most important considerations in purchasing a farm: water, roads and neighbors (aquam, viam, vicinum). Although Cato was thinking of the other farms as the neighbors, for us the Y-shaped draw that cuts through the farm is now an important part of our neighborhood. Flanked by ancient Garry oaks, Douglas firs, a couple of madrones, big-leaf maples, hawthorns and service berries, this is the marrow of the farm. In using "marrow," both senses of the word apply: the life-sustaining core of the farm's bones and, in old English vernacular, a partner or spouse.

When we arrived at the farm, the draw was choked with blackberries and used for decades as a dump. Water heaters by the dozens, engine blocks, stoves, refrigerators and other appliances, along with great coils of barbed wire, had been been pushed into the thorny mess. Over a two year period, we cleaned it up, hauling out the blackberries and appliances. It took longer for draw's function to return, but over time native plants reestablished themselves. Each year, we see improvements as we patrol, shovel in hand, for surviving blackberries.

This marrow of the farm now supports a pair of red-tailed hawks, three or four kestrel families and a pair of great horned owls. The owl laid the first of her eggs last Wednesday, and is brooding (right; click to enlarge). The second egg will be under her soon. The kestrels and red tails are amorous and will join the broody owl in their nesting tasks. Over the summer, flickers, wrens, brown creepers, orioles, acorn woodpeckers, nuthatches, tanagers, various warblers and juncos will all raise clutches in the draw and on its flanks. The engine that supports this diversity is the complex mixture of grasses and broadleaf plants that grow on the ground once choked off by blackberries and appliances. The grubs and caterpillars that eat the leaves in turn feed the growing chicks. And some of those growing chicks will fatten the young owls, hawks and falcons.

In the wet soil at the base of the draw, a healthy population of red legged and tree frogs developed. They migrated out into the oak savannah and the cropped fields during the summer and early autumn. Dozens made their home around the house, seeking shelter in the shiplap siding during the day. They were constantly underfoot. Many came inside with the house plants, and we enjoyed their calls during the winter. The large, phlegmatic salamanders (Pacific ambystomas) also started appearing in the fields. The increasing populations of these amphibians validated our management efforts. We have come to terms with the fact that farming is necessarily disruptive of natural communities, but having the reinvigorated marrow of the farm offsetting our activities is a balm.

Late last April, following the release of radiation from the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors and its detection over the Pacific Northwest, we corresponded with a customer regarding its effect on our food. Our response was that lighter radioactive isotopes carried by the wind have a short half-life and by the time our fruits and vegetables are growing the weather pattern would shift away from the Pacific storm pattern. As I responded I thought to myself that if there was a problem, the frogs would be the first affected. We heard the peepers through the spring.

In July, when we started harvesting greens for market, we noticed the frogs had almost disappeared. Where we would disturb a dozen or more frogs any other year, we were lucky to see just one, and it was invariably small. The fields were silent, none of their rasping calls. In the evening we noticed that even the bull frogs in the wetland had ceased calling. We searched the siding: the smudges where the frogs crawled in and out remained, but there were no green faces staring at us – an eerie Mary Celeste moment. We asked Zenón if he noticed anything different with the frogs. He shrugged his shoulders and said he thought there were plenty. Two days later, when he was working in the sweet potatoes, prime tree frog habitat, he called us over and said we were right, they had gone. When I had a moment, I went down the the ditch below the poplars, another reliable frog habitat, and the Leopard and Bull frogs were also missing. We decided to wait and see if things changed; it was a cool spring.

For months we have been watching and listening. Friday afternoon, we heard a single frog calling in the draw, a hopeful sign, but a far cry from previous years. Over the past decade, a chytrid fungus has decimated frog populations around the world, including high altitude populations in the Cascades—maybe it has encroached upon the valley floor. Perhaps frog populations are naturally cyclic and the cold spring was at fault. However, it was hard to shake off the knowledge that as our frogs were drawn by vernal rites to the water, the storms over the Pacific were delivering a radioactive welcome. Salamanders (right, above) are also missing from their usual haunts. Like the frogs, these are fragile amphibians who must leave their protected lairs and travel, sometimes miles, to the ponds and wetlands where they mate, and the larval stages mature.

Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson's Silent Springwarned us to pay attention to the damage we do to the world around us. The book was elegantly written, and carefully research and documented. Sadly, half a century later, Carol and I are waiting anxiously to see if the frog ponds remain silent this spring. We seem to be alone in this vigil, getting blank stares when we raise the matter, and I have hesitated to even broach the subject in a newsletter though it gnawed at me for months. Bees have their beekeepers and birds have their birdwatchers to sound the alarm when all is not right. Someone has to mind the frogs.

Photos (excepting the frog on the bean leaf) by Anthony Boutard. Track the progress of the owl family with the Great Horned Owl Follow-Up and Leaving the Nest.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Livin' in the Blurbs: Poetry of Spring

Grab your tatami mat and calligraphy brush, folks, it's time for the 3rd Annual Springwater Farm Truffle Haiku contest! If spring has you longing for these treasures from the forest floor and you find pleasure in the olfactory explosion in your head when you inhale their scent, this is your chance to express yourself. Even better, there are prizes involved! The deadline for entries is Sunday, Feb. 19, and you can post your composition on The Farmer's Feast website or drop it off at the Springwater Farm stand at the Portland Farmers Market on Sat., Feb. 18, or at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market on Feb. 19. If you need some more inspiration, last year's winner was a doozy:

It was our first time
You and I unearthed much more
Now we search as one

As with any contest, if you don't enter, you can't win, so get to scribblin'!

* * *

You don't need to watch Portlandia or read the New York Times to get the message that Portland is one of the coolest places on the planet to live. All you have to do is go to the city's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (yes, it's cool enough to have that, too) and take a gander at their list of Urban Growth Bounty classes (also listed on the calendar, left). From beekeeping to chickens to organic gardening to food preservation, for a reasonable price ($15-$50) you can learn from the experts about how to be a more productive citizen. Literally!

* * *

If you love good music but hate crowded arenas or concert halls, not to mention sky-high ticket prices, consider one of the small venue concerts put on by Matt Miner Music. Matt began by putting on concerts in his home featuring local and national singers and songwriters looking to supplement their concert schedules. Now he's moved to intimate venues where you can sit mere feet from some brilliant musicians, with ticket prices that are ridiculously cheap considering the talents on display:
  • Gary Ogan. Mar. 8, 7 pm; $10 adv., $12 door. O'Connor's Vault, 7850 SW Capitol Hwy.
  • Jazz Guitar Summit with Dan Balmer, John Stowell and Mike Pardue. Mar. 18, 3 pm; $20 adv. Nel Centro Restaurant in the Modera Hotel, 1408 SW 6th Ave.
  • The Barn Birds, Chris Kokesh and Jonathan Byrd. April 27, 9 pm; $15 adv. Secret Society Ballroom, 116 NE Russell St.
Details: Concerts by Matt Miner Music. Tickets available through Brown Paper Tickets. Info, contact 503-484-8196 or e-mail.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Fungi and Farro? Far Out!

It's been deadline city on a couple of stories for FoodDay, so I apologize for the dearth of posts this last week. But fortunately contributor Jim Dixon of RealGoodFood is still recounting his travels in Italy, so we can all be the beneficiaries of the delicious knowledge he gained there. And if you can, get some of the Pantellerian oregano he brought back…it is some of the most amazing oregano I've ever had!

It’s been almost three months since we were on Pantelleria, but I always have a little bit of the island in my kitchen. And since we went mushroom hunting while we were there, using Pantellerian flavors with mushrooms seemed right.

Farro con Funghi Pantesco

Soak and cook a couple of cups of the Bluebird Grain Farms farro. [Other farro is fine, too, but Bluebird is a small NW farm with fantastic products. - KAB] While the grain is simmering, slice a pound of mushrooms, several cloves of garlic, and a couple of anchovies (preferably salt-packed). Cook the mushrooms in a dry skillet over medium heat; they’ll give up their liquid, and when it’s almost completely cooked off, add enough extra virgin olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan.

Add the garlic, anchovies, a few big pinches of Pantellerian oregano, and a couple of tablespoons or so of capers. (You can buy salt-packed capers at New Seasons or order the Pantellerian capers from Gustiamo…if you do, get the salt-packed anchovies from them, too.) Add the cooked farro, simmer together for awhile, and eat.

Photo of Pantellerian Boletus and Agaricus Delicius from FlourishNourish.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Mascarpone for the Masses

Part of the myth of the classic superhero is that they walk among us, unrecognized, until the moment when their skills are required, whether to save a damsel in distress or to prevent a runaway train from plunging into a ravine. Whether they slip around a corner to strip down to their tights or simply take off as is from the street, they're inevitably paragons of beauty and rectitude.

My superheroes play just as important a role, even though they rarely get comic books written about them or movie deals based on their life stories. Today's story in the Oregonian's FoodDay, titled "Lessons from a Mascarpone Maestro," is about just such a person.

Marco Frattaroli was born in Rome to his mother, a university professor, and his father, an American earning his medical degree in Italy. He inherited his love of food from his family, since his father's parents had a restaurant in Philadelphia, and his mother's family were from Brescia, in Lombardy, known for its cheeses, salamis and prosciutto.

As a child his family lived and traveled extensively in Europe, then as a young man he came to Portland to go to college at PSU. He stuck around, selling Roman antiquities and, oddly enough, hunting accessories, before deciding he wanted to learn to bake the kind of bread he remembered from his childhood. A stint as an intern in Italy taught him the skills he needed, and he and a friend opened the Tuscan Bakery, one of a small handful of artisan bakeries operating in Portland at the time (others were Pierre’s, Portland French Bakery, Le Panier and Bread & Ink).

He eventually opened Basta's Trattoria in 1992 in a renovated fast food joint, using reclaimed and recycled materials for the interior, with murals by Sandy Sampson, his first wife. Dedicated to local, organic and house-made ingredients, it was quite unusual for its time. And that kind of effort, especially spanning more than two decades, qualifies as heroic, at least in my book.

Video and photos by Randy Rasmussen for The Oregonian.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Truffle-licious Eugene Weekend

When the folks at Travel Lane County asked if I'd be interested in coming down to the Oregon Truffle Festival to forage for the elusive Oregon white truffle, I answered as fast as I could hit the "reply" button on my mail program and type "Yes, please!" Not only did it afford the chance to learn the secrets of the trade from experts, which I'd get to write about for an upcoming article in FoodDay, I'd have a chance to explore the city of Eugene, a place I hadn't been in far too long.

The festival was taking place at the Eugene Hilton, a large convention-type hotel near the Fifth Street Public Market, an indoor shopping center that opened in the seventies in a redeveloped industrial building. Originally a funky blend of hippie dress shops, coffee houses and import shops, the market's become a still-local but a bit more upscale home to restaurants, gift shops and artisan wares and is the anchor of the newly designated 5th Avenue Historic Market District.

Luckily for Dave and I, our designated lodgings were just a couple of blocks away in the far smaller but much cozier Campbell House bed and breakfast (left), a historic inn built in 1892 that is tucked in a quiet neighborhood of Victorian homes at the base of Skinner's Butte. Comfortable rooms, most with ensuite bathrooms, are nicely appointed but not crowded with Victorian gewgaws. It has a restaurant on the premises, as well, though we didn't have a chance to try it out, but breakfast came with great coffee, warm house-made scones and an entrée (scrambled eggs one morning, breakfast burritos the next).

Since we weren't due at the festival reception for a couple of hours, our first stop after checking in was just down the street at Steelhead Brewing. A mainstay of the market neighborhood for more than 20 years, it's roomy, comfortable place with a good selection of Northwest beers and a more wide-ranging menu than is found in most brewpubs. And it's a great place to work out the kinks from the road over a pint or two.

On our one free evening we met friends for a drink and apps at Sfizio (top and right), a fairly new place just north of the river across the Ferry Street Bridge. Though its situated in a strip mall, the glow from its warm and woody interior and the scent of Italian goodness wafting from within put to rest my initial skepticism about the location. Plus it had the imprimatur of Jason French (one of the friends we met) who said its chef, Alex Bourgidu, had been his very talented sous at Ned Ludd.

The cocktail list was well-edited, and many of the drinks featured house-made infusions and bitters. The apps were terrific and reflected a seasonal bent as well, like the grilled sardines with roasted white beans, fresh ricotta-topped crostini and house pickles. The rabbit sugo, which the table split, was an intensely flavored combination of braised rabbit and root vegetables with papardelle and shaved ricotta salata. This place is definitely at the top of our go-to list for dinner on the next trip down.

Crazily, after an evening opener like that, we'd made reservations for a late dinner at Marché, one of Eugene's top-rated restaurants. On the ground floor of the 5th St. Market, this very French bistro is casual and intimate with spot-on service that doesn't blink an eye (or turn up a nose) when you request splitting an entrée. Though of course by that time we'd had (another) appetizer—a dozen fresh oysters—and a cocktail, as well as ordering a bottle of wine with that entrée. (We were within walking distance of our B&B, after all.)

The plate we split was a gorgeous hunk of perfectly tender pork shoulder on a bed of toasted farro, with candied kumquats and an olive tapenade alongside, an inventive combination that was earthy and the perfect foil to the frigid temperatures outside. Again, I'd recommend this place without hesitation if you're planning a trip down, or even if you're just traveling through…they also serve breakfast and lunch, which I can only imagine would be just as wonderful.

Campbell House, a Country Inn, 252 Pearl St., Eugene. 541-343-1119.
Steelhead Brewing Co., 199 E 5th Ave. 541-686-2739.
Sfizio, 105 Oakway Center, Eugene. 541-302-3000.
Marché, 296 E 5th Ave., #226, Eugene. 541-683-2260.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Farm Bulletin: Filling the Compost Bucket is an Agricultural Act

One of the many things I love about contributor Anthony Boutard and his wife, Carol, of Ayers Creek Farm, is that they approach their work as farmers deliberately yet with a sense of whimsy, and work hard at not only pleasing their legions of fans, but themselves, as well.

The midden heap, the proto-compost pile of prehistoric settlements, is the first stop for archeologists. The bone fragments, chewed plant remains called "quids," shells, obsolete tools, and seeds tossed upon the heap provide insights on a culture's food habits, trade and other aspects of life before we started chronicling it all on tablet and paper. The midden was also the likely first stop for agriculture – a fertile incubator for the domestication and cultivation of plants. The concentration of organic matter and minerals yielded tender and flavorful vegetables close at hand, initially by chance and later by design. Those of you who have been tossing this winter's squash seeds into your backyard compost may have a knot of vines emerging among the potatoes and other kitchen scrap survivors. Composting is, in some respects, a reenactment of early agriculture. 

In archeological excavations, the squashes and pumpkins that emerge from your compost show up as the oldest domesticated plants in the Americas. In the neolithic age, before the development of pottery, they were collected at large for use as vessels for water, seeds and fruits. Around 6,000 to 9,000 years ago, cultivated forms of these cucurbits start to enter the archeological record. They were still the hard shelled cultivars used as containers, but the selection, planting and cultivation of the now larger fruits also yielded much larger seeds, one hallmark of domestication. Even with the advent of pottery production, light and durable squash hulls remained important vessels.

With domestication of the plant, squash and pumpkin seeds found their way into the American diet. They are flavorful and very nutritious. In Mexican and Central American cookery, the seeds are still used extensively in stews, soups and sauces, most famously in moles and pozoles. In Mexico and Central America there are dozens of local varieties with a range of flavors and seed sizes.

Members of the Cucurbitaceae contain extremely bitter toxins called cucurbitacins in their foliage, flowers and fruits which delayed the use of the other parts of the plant as a food. In addition, the early pumpkins had very fibrous flesh, essentially the unadorned vessels leading from the plant to the seed.  Eventually, in the protective custody of the plants' cultivators, the toxins no longer conferred an advantage and non-bitter cultivars emerged. These developed into the modern zucchini, crooknecks and winter squash we bring to market, where the vessels are surrounded with soft pulp. The squash and pumpkins bearing edible fruit were favored by the indigenous people of North America. Further south, the seeds, tendrils and flowers are still preferred over the fruit.

Like potatoes, peppers, corn and tomatoes, American squash found a place in European and Asian cooking. For the most part, the fruits and flowers are used. In the Austrian state of Styria, special pumpkins are grown for their seeds, which are roasted and pressed for oil. Towards the end of the 19th century, a Styrian pumpkin without a tough seed coat appeared, making the task of pressing oil more efficient. Although they are typically called naked seeded or hull-less, a papery vestigial seed coat remains. Kakai and Lady Godiva are the naked seeded Styrian pumpkin varieties commercially available in the United States. 

Three years ago, we purchased a package of "Brand X" pumpkin seeds for pozole and we were disappointed by their quality. They were expensive, stale, and most of the seeds were broken. Our disappointment led us to conclude that, as we were growing all of the other pozole ingredients, why not the pumpkin seeds? The following spring, we planted both hull-less varieties. Mice managed to find every seed in the Kakai row, but a few Godiva were missed and we harvested a small crop. The harvested seeds were orders of magnitude better than the Brand X sorts, but still expensive as the seeds were time-consuming to extract and clean. This year, we planted Kakai again and we refined the extraction process. We will have some of this year's pumpkin seeds this Sunday, close to Brand-X pricing.

The commercially available seed for Kakai is not well maintained, posing a challenge to the farmer. There is a huge amount of unproductive variability in the grex (breeding population). Some fruits have a high percentage of split seeds and their size varied tremendously (top photo; bad pumpkin, right; good pumpkin, left). Some of the plants were bush types, and others vining. As we worked through them, we noticed the giant fruits had no more seeds than those a quarter of their size, just more useless pulp. There was variation in seed flavor from fruit to fruit, but for the most part it was consistently good. The serious problem was the number of fruits with split seeds, roughly 50%. The split seeds had started to germinate in the fruit and had an unpleasant bitterness.

We now have a rough idea of the beast at hand, and next year we will be working on selecting the best pumpkins for seed. We will plant the Kakai in an isolated section of the farm so there is no cross-pollination with other squash types. At harvest, we will mark the fruits with a plant number and, after they have cured, start the process of selecting seed from those with good characteristics. Initially, we will focus on small fruits without split seeds. We expect it will take several years to rework the variety. If we are successful, we will sell a very good pumpkin seed that makes financial sense to grow and harvest.

The process of drawing out favorable qualities from seed as described above is just the same as when a person selected the better seed among the plants sprouting on the midden heap, or the sharp-eyed Styrian farmer who happened upon a fruit with naked seeds and worked on its improvement. Patience and careful observation is what it takes. We have a big advantage because we will be building on dedicated work and expertise of the midden heap and Styrian farmers.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

A Little Face Time

The Oregonian is printing a Q&A with each of the blog partners in the new Oregon News Network, and today, well, it was my turn. Read the interview here!