Thursday, June 30, 2016

Italian Herb Risotto: Making the Most of Summer's Best

I first saw this spectacular dish among the drool-worthy photos on the Instagram feed of Portland's Florentine outpost, Burrasca, and was intrigued with its verdant green color and creamy texture. You see, we eat a lot of risotto around here, since it's easy to adapt to whatever you have in your pantry or vegetable bin, it's quick—around twenty minutes cooking time—and, in summer, doesn't heat up the kitchen. Summer is also when fresh herbs are plentiful in gardens and at farmers' markets.

Plus, if you make it in the summer and get too warm standing in front of the stove, you are allowed a glass (or more, depending on how quickly you drain it) of a chilled white or rosé.

For this particular recipe, I had a fair amount left of the arugula and parsley I'd bought at the farmers' market over the weekend, as well as chives and tarragon from the garden, but you can use any greens that come to hand, like spinach, chard, sorrel, kale, chervil, dill, basil or the like. Eminently flexible, you can design your own flavor profile—I'd only caution you to not overload the mixture with stronger-tasting herbs, but let them weave in and out of the milder ones.

Risotto Alle Erbe/Italian Herb Risotto

3 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. butter or margarine
Half of a medium yellow onion, chopped fine
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 c. arborio or other short-grained rice
1 c. white or rosé wine
5 c. chicken stock
3 c. mixed green herbs (I used arugula, parsley and chives), chopped fine
2 Tbsp. tarragon, chopped fine
1 1/2 c. parmesan or romano, grated fine

Heat olive oil and butter over medium heat in large saucepan until it shimmers, then add onion and sauté until translucent. Add garlic and sauté briefly, then add rice and sauté for 2 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent sticking. Add wine and stir until it is absorbed into the rice, then begin adding stock a ladle-full at a time, stirring frequently, allowing the stock to be absorbed before adding more. When about half the stock has been used, add the finely chopped herbs and stir them in until they wilt slightly, then continue adding the stock until the rice is slightly chewy and the risotto has a creamy texture. Add 1/2 c. parmesan and stir to combine. Serve immediately.

Check out these terrific risotto recipes and expand your risotto horizons!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Local Co-op Adds Online Ordering, Home Delivery

Ordering your groceries online is nothing new in Portland. Larger supermarkets like New Seasons, Costco and Whole Foods have offered it, along with home delivery, for awhile, and even newcomer Green Zebra has added the service for the neighborhoods it serves. Last fall Fred Meyer added online ordering for groceries, but customers must order the day before and pick up at the store.

The reason these big boys are jumping on the online bandwagon is simple—they've found that people don't want to take the time or trouble to drive to the store, find a parking space and then wander the aisles checking items off their grocery lists, not to mention fighting traffic and wrestling with bored kids. Then there's the ease of knowing exactly what the store carries, rather than getting there and finding they're out of pomegranate juice or that they've discontinued your favorite brand of mayonnaise.

That's why just this month Food Front Cooperative Grocery became the first co-op in the area to offer both online ordering and home delivery to its owner/members and the public through the Instacart system. According to Marketing Director Brie Hilliard, the decision to go forward with an online system was made two years ago but was put on the backburner until the co-op had the systems in place to launch it successfully.

The timing for adding the service is fortuitous, since this year New Seasons opened its new Slabtown store just a few blocks from the co-op's original location on Northwest Thurman. So now, in addition to serving customers near the Thurman location and its second store in Hillsdale, Hilliard said that with the exception of a few zip codes, the co-op is able to fill orders in most of Portland's close-in neighborhoods in one to two hours.

Though you don't have to belong to the co-op to use the service, General Manager Eamon Molloy (at left in top photo) said the goal was to expose a broader spectrum of people to the high quality of the products that the co-op offers and, as a result, hopefully gain new owner/members. Not only do owner/members get discount pricing, but with the addition of online ordering and home delivery, it no longer matters if people live near the store as long as they're within the delivery areas.

A key reason that the co-op decided to go with Instacart's service is that it's easy to sign up for the service from Food Front's website, and Instacart has a trained "picker" in every store to fill orders and hand them off to drivers, though Hilliard stressed that the store is trying to use its own staff to fill as many orders as possible.

While Food Front may be the first co-op in the area to add online ordering and delivery, Jenna Chen, Marketing and Design Manager at People's Food Co-op in Southeast Portland, said that its board is considering adding the service "because [our] competitors are doing it."

"People don't go out and shop anymore," she said of the trend to buy groceries online, even among the supposedly non-traditional audience attracted to co-ops. The holdup with adding the service at People's, according to Chen, is that the point-of-sale (POS) system would have to be completely changed in order to work with the service providers' systems, an expensive and complicated undertaking.

As for Food Front, in the first two weeks, without any big announcement or press releases, orders were coming in from as far away as Sellwood and St. Johns, a promising start. "We're really excited to offer this service," said Molloy.

Apparently the co-op's member/owners—along with non-members—are, too. One happy customer summed it up this way when she placed her order: "This is a gift to my daughter. Thank you for making it possible for a mother living in Germany to send a hug."

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Blackcurrants For "Cassis de Gaston"

Blackcurrant season jumps out at me when I least expect it. This year it was mid-June when I asked Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston to reserve a flat of their amazing organic blackcurrants for me. A couple of years ago I wanted to make some black currant liqueur, hoping it might turn out half as seductive as that made by their farm chef and my friend, Linda Colwell, who had served me some of the luscious liquid she had infused using those selfsame currants.

Chopping the currants.

It being the first time I'd experimented with the stuff, I infused two pints of crushed currants into a bottle of vodka, let it sit in our basement for a month, filtered out the solids, then added sugar to taste. After a few more months (I really forget how many) of hanging out in our basement, I tasted it and, as my husband would say, holy cow-ledo! Smooth, port-like, the color of dark red velvet and tasting deeply of currants, this was nothing like the bottles of commercial Creme de Cassis I'd bought from the store.

Infusing vodka with currants.

I got the call from Gaston that they were picking their blackcurrants this week, so if you want to make some liqueur this summer you need to head to your farmers' market or a produce purveyor that carries local produce. If liqueur isn't your jam you can make preserves, but you'll need to move quickly since this fleeting summer fruit is not going to wait.

Blackcurrant Liqueur, or "Cassis de Gaston"

As mentioned above, the first year I bought two pints of currants and infused one bottle of vodka with them. This year I'm using eight pints and infusing three liters of vodka, equal to four single bottles. In a month I'll let you know how it turns out!

2 pints blackcurrants
1 750-ml bottle vodka (I use Monopolowa)
Sugar to taste

Clean currants and pull off any large stems. Working in batches, place the currants in a food processor and pulse five or six times until they are chopped but not puréed. Put the chopped currants into a clean glass container and add the vodka, stirring to combine. Cover and put in a cool, dark place (I put it in the basement) for one month.

After a month, filter the mixture through a sieve, pressing out as much liquid as possible, then dispose of the solids in your compost. A general rule of thumb is to add sugar in an amount that is 20% of the weight (not the volume) of the liquid, but you can adjust to your taste. Put it back in the (washed) glass container for a few additional months to allow the flavors to combine and the vodka to mellow. Taste occasionally until it suits you.

This is wonderful by itself as an after-dinner drink or when drizzled on ice cream. It can also be combined with a dry white wine (2 Tbsp. of cassis to 6 oz. of chilled white wine) to make the drink called Kir, or use the same proportions to make a Kir Royale, substituting champagne for the white wine.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Papa's Favorite Cocktail, the Daiquiri

I've always thought of daiquiris as being big, slushy tropical drinks laced with coconut, pineapple and lots of rum, more often than not served with that prerequisite decoration for tropical cocktails, a tiny paper umbrella. Which may be a misperception, at least according to my 1981 reprint of the original 1946 Trader Vics Book of Food & Drink.

Constantino at La Florida (Hemingway is on his right).

Various sources, including Trader Vic's book, lay its origin to Cuba. Not unusually in the history of cocktails, credit for creating the drink itself seems to be clouded. Wikipedia claims its inventor was "an American mining engineer named Jennings Cox, who was in Cuba at the time of the Spanish-American War" and that it was introduced to clubs in New York City by "William A. Chanler, a U.S. congressman who purchased the Santiago iron mines in 1902."

From Who’s Who Havana Cuba magazine, July 14, 1938.

Trader Vic's sidesteps the issue of the daiquiri's creator, but refers to "Constantino of La Florida Bar in Havana [having] perfected this one and it is to his credit that this one rum cocktail competes in popularity with the old stand-bys such as Martinis, Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds." The book goes on to give four of Constantino's variations on the daiquiri, numbered 1 through 4 in turn, numbers three and four of which have instructions to "serve frappé." Though there's no mention which one Hemingway preferred, it was his favorite cocktail and legend has it that on occasion he downed a dozen in a sitting.

It then gives a recipe for the Trader Vic's daiquiri, which bears the special insignia of a tiny palm tree with a T on one side of the trunk and a V on the other. The front of the book quaintly states that "recipes so marked are original and may not be reprinted without permission from the author." So, much as I would love to share it, I won't.

Luckily for all of us, though, like Constantino, my husband Dave has created his own version of the daiquiri. A classic three-ingredients cocktail, it substitutes dark rum—we prefer Mount Gay over Bacardi or Myers's—for the usual light rum and uses demerara sugar for the simple syrup rather than cane sugar. Shake one up and see if you don't agree with Papa that it makes other people much more interesting.

Good Stuff NW House Daiquiri

2 oz. dark rum
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 oz. simple syrup (stir equal amounts demerara sugar and cold water until dissolved)

Shake with ice; strain into cocktail glass or coupe.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Travels with Chili: Mountains of Fun, Part One

When I heard about a conference in Eastern Oregon that was going to be discussing the food system—meaning how people get food to put on their tables—in that rural region of the state, I knew I had to go. You see, I've been wanting to get up to speed on the issues faced by people living in our farther-flung communities, so different from the you-want-it-you-got-it life many of us live in Portland with Whole Foods, New Seasons and even Fred Meyer stores within a few minutes of our homes. (Read my report here.)

The one-day conference was in La Grande, about a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Portland, and I decided to take a couple of days to explore the area and talk with a few producers if I could. When I contacted the visitors' association about who I should talk to, they generously offered to host a portion of my lodging for the trip but let me pick the places—perfect since I'm not a big chain hotel type traveler.

On Chappy at my grandfather's ranch.

Now, you have to remember that Eastern Oregon, particularly the triangle defined by La Grande, Baker and Enterprise with their beautiful valleys, gorgeous mountains and miles of grain fields and grazing cattle, are an intimate part of my history. My mother's family had a cattle ranch in North Powder, at the foot of the Blue Mountains, where we would spend vacations. As a young "horse crazy" girl, I would ride with my grandfather to the ranch in the mornings in the hope of getting in a ride on the quarter horses they used for working cattle. My aunt taught swimming at Radium Hot Springs (sadly now closed), one of the many geothermally heated pools in the area, and another aunt had a rustic log cabin at one of the smaller lakes in the Anthony Lakes system, with a huge woodburning cookstove that looked more like a 30s-era American car with its chrome curliques blackened with smoke and age.

Yes, I do go back a ways in this country.

Ordnance Brewing in Boardman.

So we hopped in Chili, our faithful Mini Clubman, and headed down the highway. Once you're through the Gorge, always a stunning drive, and past The Dalles, there's never been much reason to stop—other than for gas or to use the rest stops—on the straight shot of I-84 to Pendleton. But I'd heard of a new brewery that had opened in Boardman with the amusing-yet-slightly-horrifying name of Ordnance Brewing, being as it sits on the western edge of the equally adorably named Umatilla Chemical Weapons Depot, the spot the government stored the nerve agents and other fun weapons they had prepared for WWII. You can still see the hummocks of the storage bunkers dotting the tumbleweed-strewn landscape between the freeway and the Columbia River.

A stop at The Prodigal Son Brewery in Pendleton.

Anyway, back to the brewery: we stopped on the way east but arrived slightly before it opened and so decided to hit it on the way back, taking our hunger and thirst a few more miles to Pendleton and The Prodigal Son Brewery. I'd written about it on a previous trip, and we again found it to be an easy stop to make, with the same great beer and hearty food, as good or better than that served at most pubs in Portland. Refueled, we were ready for the climb up Cabbage Hill's 6% grade and into the Blue Mountains, which would then take us down into the Grande Ronde Valley a little over an hour away.

The Historic Union Hotel.

The freeway over the mountains follows a series of streams, tributaries of the Grande Ronde River that will eventually flow into the Snake River, itself a tributary of the Columbia. We were headed to the tiny town of Union for the night, ten miles outside of La Grande. I'd booked a room at the 1920s-era Historic Union Hotel, refurbished in a comfortably charming, unfussy style by owners Charlie Morden and Ruth Rush.

Charming touches in each room.

Charlie, a keen collector of antique cars, has a classic Rolls Royce parked out front and is the hotel restaurant's chef. Ruth, who greets guests and sees to the gardens and upkeep of the building, showed us to the Davis Brothers' Room, one of the hotel's 15 themed rooms. It's a tribute to Union-area ranchers Pete and R.B. Davis, who lived in the hotel for many years. An interesting historical note: a stipulation of the brothers' inheritance from their family was that they would lose the entire fortune if either one ever married; they remained bachelors the rest of their lives.

Hot Lake Springs near Union.

Another option for lodging is Hot Lake Springs, once a derelict turn-of-the-century health spa near Union that was purchased in 2003 by Joseph-area bronze sculptor David Manuel and his family. Seven years and $10 million in upgrades later, it reopened as a bed-and-breakfast inn featuring massage and mineral springs spa packages, and has many of Manuel's sculptures dotting the grounds.

This area's hotbed of hot springs also includes the municipal pool at nearby Cove, a tiny town nestled against the hills ringing the valley. The pool is located directly over a natural hot spring, and is constantly refreshed by the flow of mineral water at a rate of 110 gallons per minute, keeping the pool at a constant and comfortable 86 degrees. Kids particularly love it because the bottom of the deep end of the pool is made up of the rocks lining the spring, fun for diving.

There's a nearby golf course, a wilderness excursion train and a tram at Wallowa Lake, but what draws folks to this valley—some fall in love with it and move permanently—is the plethora of year-round outdoor activities like hiking, camping, skiing and biking in the Wallowa Mountains, Hells Canyon and Anthony Lakes areas. Check back for more installments in this series, coming soon!

Read Part 2 about Baker City, plus murder and mayhem on a bison ranch! You can also read about my camping trip to the Imnaha River near Joseph, Oregon.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

In Season: Hear That Rumble? It's Summer Coming!

It's mid-June and already heads are spinning among farmers, produce buyers and customers. Last year's spring temperatures brought crops to market a couple of weeks early, but with this year's temperatures in May and June at times topping 90 degrees, we're seeing some fruits and vegetables ripening as much as a month (or more) earlier than usual. So buckle up your seat belts, folks, because according to local produce maven Josh Alsberg at Rubinette Produce it's going to be a crazy roller coaster ride of deliciousness this summer.

With hyper-local Hood strawberries done, you'll still see everbearing Seascapes and Albions trickling in through the rest of the summer. This week Josh has witnessed farm trucks loaded with cane berries like raspberries and blackberries—mostly Obsidian and Silvan varieties—rolling in, and the farmers are telling him that marionberries and boysenberries will be arriving in about two weeks. Fans of Ayers Creek Farm's legendary Chester blackberries are going to be in for a bit of thumb-twiddling and knee-jiggling, though, since Anthony and Carol Boutard don't see that harvest starting until mid-July.

Blueberries are in plentiful supply, so look for them to be available for at least the next month. And you may be seeing peaches and nectarines in stores now, but Josh warns that these first ones are not the most flavorful—he recommends waiting a couple of weeks for the best varieties for your pies and preserves. It'll be worth it! And due to the vagaries of weather and the whims of the gods, there's apparently a smaller-than-usual harvest of apricots this year, but they will be available for the next several weeks.

Believe it or not, the magicians at Philomath's Gathering Together Farm are bringing a few varieties of cherry tomatoes to market, along with their early Siletz tomatoes. Heirlooms and beefsteak tomatoes will start popping up this weekend and arrive in earnest by the end of the month. (It's a good thing this whole "climate change" thing is a hoax or I'd be tempted to start some serious hand-wringing about now. [Hashtag: just joking])

Other items Josh advises keeping an eye out for: slicing and Asian cucumbers are in now and by next week you'll start to see other varietals, as well as pickling cukes, which should be around for awhile. There'll be oodles of those gorgeously alive lettuce heads as long as the heat doesn't kill them, and—hold onto your hats—early corn should appear within 10 to 14 days.

Look foward to local table grapes, figs and melons around the middle of July, with the first new crop of apples, like Gravensteins, available at the end of July. But, as Josh made sure to reiterate, all of this is speculative: "Only Ma Nature knows the real harvest schedule."

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Farm Bulletin: The Owlets Emerge from Seclusion

We have lived in our Portland neighborhood for more than twenty years. In that time we have observed the lives of our neighbors, the growth of their children from babies to adults and the peculiarities of their habits, developing theories along the way as to why they do the things they do. In much the same way, contributor Anthony Boutard and his wife Carol have tracked the lives of their neighbors at Ayers Creek Farm, the birds, insects and other denizens that share their habitat.

As we noted almost a month ago, our two owl chicks had left the nest and entered into a state of seclusion. We could hear their faint mewing, akin that of a hungry kitten, but small, well-camouflaged and tucked into the tree boughs, they remained out of sight. Someone unaccustomed to this moment might assume they had died or flown away. It took us a few years to understand this time in the birds' lives.

Last week, the young owls emerged from their month of seclusion. They can hop and glide from branch to branch and make short attempts at flight. It will be another month before their growing muscles and feathers will allow them to fly with their mother.

The home range of the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) extends from northern Argentina to Alaska, including all of the mainland United States, from the coasts to the mountains, from the rain forest to the desert. Within this range, the size, habits and coloration of the owl vary according to habitat. These variations are summarized and characterized by about 20 subspecies, though the variations are not really discrete but are representative for certain geographic areas. The great horned owls that Carol and I observed in New England are longer in body and bear more brown and cinnamon plumage than their Oregon brethren. In the Garry oaks of our savannah, the eastern form would be conspicuous, but the local variant blends in perfectly, as seen at left (click photo to enlarge). The young owl is easily mistaken for a stub of a branch, or just more bark.

As they feel more secure and move further out onto the branches, their silhouette betrays them. They have also become noisier, uttering irritating screeches even during the day. By the end of autumn, they will disperse. That is the most hazardous moment they will encounter, as they seek a safe breeding territory. Cars and power lines will pose a big threat, as will other predators and trigger-happy humans. In past winters, we have seen owl carcasses along Spring Hill Road.

These large owls can live up to 30 years; the parents of these young owls have been here at least 18 years, as far as we can tell. However, attrition is very high in that dispersal period and the harsh reality is that these two birds will probably never feed their own young. Though any that survive that first year can expect a long life. References indicate an average of about 22 years.

As children, my parents brought us to the Museum of Science in Boston. Every year I looked forward to the demonstration with Spooky the great horned owl (right), the engaging ambassador of the Strigiformes, the owl order. Years later, our daughter Caroline and I went to the museum and they had an owl there. I went up to admire the bird and told its handler about my fond memories of Spooky. He smiled and said "This is Spooky." At that point, the owl was already older than me, and lived for several more years, dying at 38. With luck, the owls outside my window could actually outlive me.

Interestingly, a few years ago, we reported that the Ayers Creek owls raised three young. The third was never strong and could barely fly even as it acquired its adult plumage. Through the autumn and into the following spring we would occasionally flush it. The owl would glide low and into the brush. It retained its screechy, immature call. Eventually it disappeared, probably died one way or another, as it was obviously incapable of the dispersal flight.

Authors are given to lurid stories about owl clutches consuming their weaker siblings. After observing the owls and their young at Ayers Creek for just shy of two decades, I find such tales unbelievable, an artifact of our desire to remain aloof from the creatures that surround us. I have watched the young owls sit and groom one another, and huddle together when crows or hawks pass overhead. They share their food and the younger, smaller sibling is indistinguishable after three months. The Ayers Creek chicks have always matured together, and when rodents are scarce they simply grow a little slower. That is happening this year. Even that obviously weaker third sibling made it to maturity and was probably hobbled more by genetic problems due to its parents' unusual fecundity than a lack of food. Breeding does carry a heavy toll for the hen in particular. At least, that is my hunch.

Photos of owlets by Anthony Boutard. Photo of Spooky from The Boston Globe.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Fleeting Pleasures: Fava Bean Salad

I got a text from neighbor. It read, "Want some Fava beans?"

I immediately texted back, "You betcha!"

A few minutes later I was standing in his back yard with a grocery bag watching him shelling some English peas—this guy is a consummate home gardener—and we chatted until he finished. Then he handed me at least a three-pound bag of luscious pods bulging with those brilliantly green early summer treats.

I was about to thank him and leave when he asked, "Could you use some fennel? I've got lots."

"You betcha!" I answered.

Fava Bean Salad

3+ lb. fava bean pods
2 cloves garlic
1/4 c. fresh mint, minced
1 serrano pepper, seeded and minced
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 c. olive oil
Salt to taste

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to boil. Put the pods—remove any debris or leaves and separate any that are attached—in the boiling water, allow it to return to a boil, then reduce heat to a good simmer for 15-20 minutes. Drain and run cold water over them to cool until you can handle them easily.

Split the pods open and remove the beans. If the beans are large, the skins around them may be woody, so taste one with the skin on first. I removed the skins from around the larger beans but left them on the smaller ones—they add a nice flavor and it'll endear you to any Italians in the crowd. Put all the beans into a mixing bowl with the rest of the ingredients and stir to combine. Adjust lemon juice, olive oil and salt to taste.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

(Cook) Book Report: Two Books That Define Eating Well

Two new cookbooks just came out that are perfectly timed to coincide with the peak of the harvest that is starting to flow in from local farms. Each is authored by veteran a cookbook writer known not only for the quality of her prose, but also the merciless testing of recipes, so you can depend on the accuracy of the descriptions and the measurements. (Why this type of rigor should be unusual in the cookbook biz puzzles me, but there you go…)

The first is the Portland Farmers Market Cookbook: 100 Seasonal Recipes and Stories that Celebrate Local Food and People by the inestimable Ellen Jackson, herself the author of several cookbooks (including co-authoring the Grand Central Baking Book) and a fine writer and chef in her own right. The book, released on the market's 25th anniversary, is as much a love letter to our region's producers and its bounty as it is a guide to cooking through the seasons.

As Jackson writes in her introduction, the book "represented an opportunity to capture both the agricultural glory of the Pacific Northwest and the pride of place we share as Portlanders. Nowhere is that ethos more evident than at our farmers' markets." Sing it, sister!

The book, arranged by season starting in the spring, is a terrific guide to seasonal cooking and eating for beginners and experienced cooks alike. Particularly useful to me is that the table of contents lists the season and then each recipe in that season by main ingredient, a helpful organization for those of us who hate flipping back and forth from the table of contents to the index in the back. From easy main dishes like curried chicken pilaf and deviled eggs to more complex flavors and textures like French-style scrambled eggs with morel-chive cream sauce or chestnut-tofu dumplings in matsutake mushroom sauce, there's something for every palate and occasion.

The second book is one I'm very excited to dive into, written by my friend and prolific author Marie Simmons. Titled Whole World Vegetarian, it is Simmons's paean to a life of international eating, from her mother's Italian-American table to the global table she explored in her early life in New York to the one that she now cultivates in her kitchen in Eugene.

"At the Saturday market in Oregon, where I now live, local goat and sheep farmers offer feta so perfectly creamy, with the right balance of sour and sweet, that it makes my knees weak," she writes, noting that our tables, not to mention our markets and stores, "are fed by globalization…fueled by mass immigration and our insatiable desire for travel."

Peanut vegetable stew…so good!

From Iranian Borani esfanaaj, a spinach and yogurt spread that is eaten out of hand with flatbread, to a shredded carrot and jicama salad that would be at home on a Mexican or South American table, to the deeply flavorful and delicious peanut vegetable stew, a dish emblematic of Ethiopian cuisine that includes a pungent blend of spices called berbere.

If you've been wanting to go beyond Meatless Monday and start including more fresh, seasonal vegetables in your meals every day, you can't miss with this book. And believe me, they're packed with so much flavor you won't miss the meat.

Read the review I wrote about Marie Simmons's book, Taste of Honey.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Got Five Minutes? Make Homemade Peanut Butter.

It wasn't exactly like those dreams I used to have about not being able to find my school classroom on exam day. It was more like the moment I realized that the corn cobs I'd been throwing away for years after a big barbecue—even the half-gnawed ones—could be put in a pot, covered with water, brought to a boil and simmered for 20 minutes to make a lovely corn stock. (Ditto for crab shells, fish carcasses…you get the picture.)

Go from roasted nuts…

But when I found out that making homemade peanut butter took…literally…five minutes start to finish, it was a big head-slapping moment for me. D'oh!

You could also roast your own raw peanuts, of course—in a shallow pan in a 350° oven for 15-20 minutes—but when I can buy organic roasted, unsalted peanuts in the bulk aisle at the store, bring them home and five minutes later have beautiful, tasty, no-added-ingredients, salted-to-my-preference peanut butter? It's a game-changer, at least around here.

…to smooth as silk in five minutes.

It's not even worth writing up an official recipe. Seriously. Just put the roasted peanuts in a food processor and turn it on, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides, add a half teaspoon of salt at some point—you might want more or less depending on your taste, of course— and five minutes later it's done.

A head-slapper, indeed.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Getting Good Food to Oregon's Far-Flung Corners

A couple of great new cookbooks arrived on my front porch awhile ago, and I wanted to try out a few recipes so I could share them with you. So, without thinking about it, I pulled out my phone and started a list of ingredients I'd need: basmati rice, fresh peas, tahini, mint, fennel, lemons, poblano peppers, smoked paprika, kimchi, fava beans, maybe some seasonal greens like garlic scapes, mizuna or raab.

Between a Whole Foods within walking distance and two New Seasons stores less than a mile away, plus Providore on Sandy that's not much further, most of the list was covered. Not to mention the four farmers' markets nearby for seasonal produce like local peas, favas, carrots, fruit and whatnot. Meats or fish? There are butchers and fish markets aplenty. And even if a recipe calls for exotic ingredients like Vietnamese culantro or key limes or black cardamom pods, between the Asian, Thai and international specialty markets in the area, there are very few things I don't have access to.

Okay, maybe not fresh durian. You've got me there.

M. Crow general store in Lostine, Oregon.

So my trip last week to the northeastern reaches of Oregon was a bit of a wake-up call. I was there to attend the Eastern Oregon Community Food Systems Gathering in La Grande, sponsored by the Oregon Food Bank. Added benefit: the keynote for the day-long conference was delivered by my friend Lynne Curry, an author, food activist and journalist from Joseph, Oregon.

The 53 people who gathered that morning over local pastries and coffee were a mix of food bank folks, Oregon State University Extension people, representatives from other community food agencies and a handful of area farmers and food retailers.

Curry's keynote contrasted the food system she found in 2001 when she moved to Joseph with the one that exists in 2016. When she first arrived, the only stores that carried groceries had a few staples, but depended mostly on sales of cigarettes, beer and junk food. Most of her actual food came from what she termed the "hidden food system" of rural living: food access meant getting eggs from the woman at the bookstore who raised chickens, foraging for mushrooms and other greens, and growing vegetables herself or trading with neighbors for the things she didn't grow. In the winter she fed her family from meat in her freezer and the jams, pickles, vegetables and sauces she'd preserved during the summer, much like our grandparents did in earlier times.

General store, Haines, Oregon.

It was amazing to me to realize that almost none of the food produced—mostly wheat and cattle—on the region's rich agricultural land is consumed locally. Rather, it's shipped hundreds, if not thousands, of miles across the country to go into the commodity market. Though, as Curry noted, that is starting to change, with livestock producers like Carman Ranch in Wallowa and 6 Ranch in Enterprise beginning to produce a marketable number of grass-fed cattle, as well as working with other area farmers to offer pigs, lamb, goats, chickens, eggs, honey and vegetables to their neighbors. These ranchers are also bringing their products to a growing number of families in Western Oregon who are interested in humanely and sustainably raised local meat.

Curry is seeing the interest in locally produced food—like the meat and vegetables above, along with beer and other products—becoming much more widespread, losing the "elitist" or "gourmet" label it had in 2001. Today, even in the far-flung regions of our state, she said that people are talking about where their food comes from, along with how it is produced, in a much more meaningful, inclusive way. And in this region where conventional agriculture—i.e. an industrial model that uses pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics—was the norm, people are beginning to demand more organic, sustainable food products for their tables.

Produce at the La Grande Farmers Market.

Farmers' markets in the area, which were few and far between in 2001, became a big outlet for local farmers and producers, and experienced growth that has slowed somewhat today. But, like here in Portland, they still act as incubators for new products, plus being what Curry referred to as a "third place" where communities can gather. She believes that this social aspect may be as important as the food that is sold, with the added benefit that they have an intrinsic educational component, showing people a different model of a food system, one based on community and relationships.

Despite this good news, though, there is still a great deal of work to be done on the issues of access to good food, not to mention the problem of food insecurity—that is, not having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. As outlined by Lauren Gwin and Sara Miller of the Oregon Community Food System Network, 18 of Oregon's least populous counties have lost stores where the community can access food. For instance, Morrow County went from five stores to one; Lake County went from three to one; Umatilla County went from 16 to 12. The town of Union has one store, which carries everything from hardware to t-shirts and features a small but adequate selection of staples on its shelves.

Pigs from Community Merchants in Union, Oregon.

Not surprisingly, these small, isolated communities also have the highest average cost of a meal, which makes sense considering the cost of getting the food to rural locations and the distances people have to travel to buy food. Compared to a national average of $2.77 per meal, people in Crook County average $5.01 per meal. In Curry County it's $3.18 and in Wasco County it's $3.10 per meal. Which, of course, means that the people who have the least amount of money to spend on food end up paying some of the highest prices for it.

Laying out the issues and challenges was the precursor to start coming up with solutions. Lynne Curry spoke about the opportunity to connect technology to the food system, proposing, like food hubs in urban centers, establishment of a collaborative network for transporting and distributing food to far-flung communites. This echoed another suggestion that rural groceries—which rarely meet the minimum orders required by large distributors—should have a system of joint purchasing agreements, which could potentially lead to purchasing and distributing produce and meat from area farmers and ranchers, which would also benefit local economies. There was a discussion of connecting the local health community to the food system in the Veggie RX "screen and intervene" program, where health care providers give low-income clients vouchers for free fruits and vegetables to stretch their SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

One group of farmers and retailers met to discuss how to bring more locally produced value-added products to market—jams, jellies, baked goods, pickles, etc.—with a focus on establishing certified community kitchens where producers could access commercial equipment. There was also discussion of the recently passed home bakery exemption (SB320) and the domestic kitchen license, with many questions asked about how it could be applied to bring more local products to market.

The energy of this group, even after a day of presentations, discussions and summations, and their desire to work together to better the everyday lives of the people in their communities, was inspiring. I'll be following up on these issues in future reports, and if you have comments or questions, please post them in the comments section below and I'll try to get them addressed.

Photo of Joseph, Oregon (top photo) from its website; photo of La Grande farmers market from its website; photo of Community Merchants pigs from its website.