Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Farm Bulletin: Of Tomatoes and Green Shoulders

Followers of Good Stuff NW know that I am a dedicated fan of the Astiana tomatoes grown by Anthony and Carol Boutard at Ayers Creek Farm. They are my family's sauce tomato, and this year I'm planning on roasting upward of 200 pounds of them to last us through the winter. Below, Anthony outlines just a few of the reasons I love them so.

Astiana is our cooking tomato derived from a Po River Valley tomato landrace of northern Italy. The fruits are large, usually green-shouldered, pear-shaped and pleated to varying degrees. A landrace is a population of fruits, vegetables or livestock that is shaped by the environment and culture of the region to which it belongs. More broadly construed than a simple catalogue variety, representatives of the landrace will vary from village to village, garden to garden, plant to plant, but they have similar qualities. In their natal valley, these tomatoes were selected for the quality of their flavor and texture after their encounter with the stove, and not for the salad plate.

We never use the word heirloom in reference to the crops we grow. We avoid the term as it coveys the idea of something not for daily use, delicate teacups for special occasions and their ilk. Our goal is to grow everyday food. Also, the honorific "heirloom" is merely defined as named varieties that have been around for at least 25 years without regard to quality or link to the land. A callow, boring and not very useful definition, up there with the silly term ancient grains. We work hard and take great care to produce fresh grains and legumes every year, and bridle at the thought that people describe them as ancient, not fresh and flavorful. If you want ancient, the bulk bin of the grocery is a good source for ancient beans and grains that don't cook up quite right.

Seeds are living plants, reshaped by their cultivators and the environment year after year, and landrace is the better term. It recognizes that living organisms are constantly adapting to changes in environments, cultures, and cultivators. The idea of a precious variety frozen in time may have a romantic pull, but the competent cultivator works to observe and guide the genetics of the crop.

Astiana, as we have named it, is our own tomato. It is the result of a decade of reselection of traits that two of us have mapped out in what we call a "design brief." We are, in effect, sheepdogs herding a milling bunch of traits. The most distinct and important trait of our tomato is its persistent green shoulders. This is an ancestral trait in tomatoes that modern breeders have long selected against because in the market they are seen as not yet ripe. It is a visual imperfection because people have long associated pure red fruit as ripe. Nonetheless, the green shoulders are closely linked to elevated flavor and recently some breeders have been looking to reincorporate this gene complex into their breeding populations. A good cooking or culinary tomato has high acidity as well as a high level of sugars and pectins. For a salad tomato, pectins are undesirable because in the raw fruit they mask certain flavors, and when dressed with vinegar or lemon juice, high acidity is not so important.

The large, blocky shape of the Astiana holds the field heat much longer than the smaller pear types favored further south in Italy and in the U.S. The ample body below the lovely green shoulders stays warm after sundown, allowing it to ripen and develop its intense flavor even during the short days followed by long, cool, late summer nights typical of the Po and Willamette Valleys, both sharing a perch on the 45th parallel. The plump, pear shape is a functional trait.

As a sauce tomato, we want a fruit with a high solid content, a relatively dry fruit. For seed production, we favor fruits with a dry locular or seed cavities. When you slice into the fruit, there is often air around the seeds. Acceptance of this trait carries some risk because if there is an opening to the outside environment, one of the cavities may mold.

In addition to the traits described above, there are a few other qualities we have selected as part of our breeding population. We include plants that are very late ripening, well into October if the rains hold off. A long counter life is another desirable quality. We have held them on the counter for more than five weeks without the slightest loss of quality, in fact they improve over that time. Disease resistance in an important consideration. Flavor is paramount, though. Every tomato is cooked and tasted before its seeds go from the cutting board to the seed jar. We want a good culinary tomato, not a slicer. It is superb as a dried fruit, as well.

So as you prepare your tomatoes, whether it is this weekend or sometime in October, you will have this mental map of how we approach the fruit. And if you hit a mold locular cavity, know that it is the nature of the beast, a trade-off we accept in our quest for a good sauce tomato.

As a bit of trivia, the tomato Gretl drops in the market of Salzburg is almost identical to the Astiana in size, shape and pleating, though it lacks the lovely green shoulder. The Sound of Music was filmed on location in the summer of 1964, providing a historical reference for this style of tomato that ranges up into Austria. If we had made the connection earlier, we might have been tempted to call our tomato 'Gretl'. (Not really, the green shoulders are missing in the Salzburg rendition.)

NOTE: Here's my technique for roasting these luscious beauties. Or check out the Boutard's recipe for tomato sauce.

* * *

For those interested in obtaining some of these seasonal beauties, Anthony has sent this additional note on Monday, Sept. 5:

"For those who find it hard to travel west to Ayers Creek on the weekends, Rubinette Produce will order 20-pound lugs of Astianas from us upon request. Rubinette will charge $42 per lug if paid by credit card, or $40 by cash/check. Place your order by e-mailing Josh Alsberg, the owner of Rubinette. He will need your order by Wednesday afternoon. He will get his order in to us Wednesday evening so we can harvest and pack the tomatoes for delivery Friday. The tomatoes will be available for a few weeks, weather permitting."

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Can Online Sales Help Food Co-ops Thrive?

When I heard that Food Front Co-op in Portland was offering online ordering and delivery to most of the Portland area, I knew it was a big story. Food co-ops have traditionally depended on their immediate neighbors for most of their sales and, particularly, for their membership subscriptions. With the grocery scene in Portland exploding, co-ops were struggling to compete. So I pitched the story to the prestigious online food-issues website, Civil Eats, and it published today.

Can Online Sales Bring Food Co-ops into the Modern Age?

New technology is allowing once-fringe natural food co-ops to reach a new audience.

If the mention of a cooperative grocery store conjures images of barefoot hippies pawing through bins of nuts and grains like squirrels, then we have news for you. Many of today’s co-ops have modernized their business plans to reach a wider audience. This fact is especially evident in the way many co-op groceries, like national supermarket chains, are on their way to offering online ordering, with delivery in one to two hours.

The reason that many brick-and mortar grocery stores are jumping on the online grocery bandwagon is simple—for many people, shopping online is more convenient.

Due to the emergence of delivery services like Instacart and Amazon Fresh, the technology which has made it possible for the chains to get online has also made it easy for co-ops, many of which have only one or two stores. Customers simply go to the store’s website, log into the online ordering section and start shopping.

Instacart currently has 100 retailers nationwide, including several co-ops such as Rainbow Grocery in the Bay Area, Good Grocer in Minneapolis, Central Co-op and Puget Consumers Co-op (PCC) in Seattle, and Harvest Coop in Boston. Andrew Nodes, head of retail accounts at Instacart, says that co-ops particularly benefit from online ordering and delivery services because it allows them to expand beyond their neighborhood membership base by giving them access to new customers.

“[Co-ops] also sell hyper-local and perishable items that don’t have the exposure that national brands backed by multibillion dollar corporations do,” he says. “Instacart is a way for them to increase customer exposure to those items.”

According to Brie Hilliard, marketing director of Food Front Cooperative Grocery in Portland, Oregon, the co-op decided to go forward with an online system two years ago, but put it on the back burner until it had a point-of-sale (POS) system in place. This year, they’ve begun offering sales through Instacart and so far around 130 customers have taken advantage of the service.

The timing was fortuitous, as it coincided with the opening of a popular 17-store grocery chain, New Seasons Market, just a few blocks from the co-op’s flagship location. With online ordering, Hilliard said, Food Front is now able to fill orders from its two locations for most of Portland’s neighborhoods in one to two hours.

Read the rest of the article.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Hot House? Chill Out With Cool Shrimp Tacos

I know it's been too hot for too long when I open a cupboard door and a blast of hot air rolls out and hits me in the face. At our house it seems to take about three days of temperatures in the high 90s to achieve this effect, so the last thing I want to do it exacerbate the problem by turning on the stove. Normally that means grilling outside, but Dave's been out of commission this week with cataract surgery, leaving dinners a last-minute "what are we gonna do" problem.

Fortunately there are good friends who have our back, who know that the last thing a person wants to do on a hot evening after a day of shuttling back and forth from doctor appointments is figure out what to have for dinner. My friend Ann offered to bring over her family's favorite hot weather, no-cook dinner on one of those nights, arriving in the late afternoon with a chilled container of shrimp salad she'd adapted from a recipe clipped out of a newspaper years before.

Made with local pink shrimp—which have passed a rigorous certification process and been declared a sustainable fishery by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)—and in-season avocados, this is a godsend in hot weather, but it's also a terrific quick solution to a weeknight dinner. Plus I can see it topping a salad of chopped greens or piled into a pita or tossed with hot or cold pasta or topping some crostini for a refreshing appetizer. Seriously, it's that flexible.

So while it's kinda hard to clip a recipe out of the computer screen, it'd be worth your while to bookmark it, save it or pin it someplace for future reference. Which is exactly the reason I'm writing this post—so I can find it the next time I need it!

Shrimp and Avocado Tacos

1 lb. pink shrimp
2 medium slightly firm avocadoes, diced
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
2 green onions, thinly sliced crosswise
1/2 c. chopped cilantro (leaves only)
Juice of 1 lime
Salt to taste
Corn or flour tortillas, at room temperature or warmed in the microwave

Combine all ingredients in large mixing bowl. Serve with tortillas.

While this is great all by itself, I chopped some cabbage to serve alongside, and you could also included sour cream, salsa or hot sauces as desired.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

My "Heart Dog"

Among dog folk there's the idea of your "heart dog," that one dog that captures your heart and ensorcells your spirit.

Walker at eight months.

Walker is that dog. I knew it when I met him, a gorgeous little tricolored hunk of Corgi puppy about five months old, the grandson of a Westminster Best in Show-winner named Carbon Blue. He came to us permanently at six months old, joining our brindle princess Rosey (née Pawcific Postit of Penrose) and adding a spark of spunk to our sedate household.

He's certainly not perfect, by any means—hyper vigilant, barky, dog reactive—but sometimes you just can't help who you love. As I said to a friend recently, "He may be a butthead, but he's our butthead."

Walker with Rosey.

At nine years old now, he was recently diagnosed with a malignant tumor called an adenocarcinoma, an aggressive cancer around his anal gland. It was only discovered by accident when I noticed that he'd been drinking lots of water, more than was normal even in the summer heat. Thinking it might be a urinary tract infection (UTI) or problems with his kidneys, I took him in to a vet new to us, Heartfelt Veterinary Hospital, to be tested.

Walker and Kitty.

In drawing the urine sample—non-dog owners can stop reading right here—they found a swelling around his anal gland and did a biopsy. It was, as noted above, a malignant tumor. X-rays were done that indicated no metastisis of the tumor to his lungs or lymph nodes and blood work showed the same, so surgery was done.

On the beach.

A large (2" by 2") tumor—in situ, with no rupture—was removed, and he's resting next to me on the couch as I write this. It'll take a couple of weeks for the healing process, with lots of pain relievers and ice on the wound, but with luck he'll live a full life and have many more squirrel chases, ball retrieving and walks on the beach to look forward to. None of that is guaranteed, of course, only fervently hoped for.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Buck, Buck, Moose: Cooking Antlered Things

When you think of hunters, no doubt visions of the bearded, raving, wild-haired Duck Dynasty clan come quickly to mind. Or maybe some of the swaggering, macho types crashing through the underbrush on reality TV or YouTube videos. Almost all guys, almost all promoting an over-testosteroned, libido-driven, "conquering nature" mien.

But that's not all hunters.

Take my friend Hank Shaw. A former newspaper reporter who covered California politics from the state's capital in Sacramento, he'd grown up with a mom who showed him how to find and eat the beach peas, sea rocket and clams that grew in or near the waters around the small town of his youth, and a dad and step-dad who loved to fish. He also began to hunt, and to write about the wild things and the wilderness for various publications and for his own blog, which was around the time our paths crossed.

Here's how he sums up his mission:
"Honest food is what I seek. Nothing packaged, nothing in a box, nothing wrapped in plastic. I eat meat, and I’m not keen on factory farms, so I either hunt it myself or, rarely, buy it from real people who raise animals humanely. Other than pork fat for charcuterie and the occasional octopus, I have not bought meat or fish for our home more than a handful of times since 2005. I am a constant forager, angler, hunter, gardener and fan of farmer’s markets. Eating locally and making good food from scratch is what I do."
Hank's first book, Hunt Gather Cook, was about his own evolution from forager and eater to the person he describes above, with sections on each of the three activities in the title. Duck Duck Goose, his second book, was about hunting the waterfowl that live in our waterways and populate the skies above us, as well as how to cook them from beak to tail feathers, to paraphrase the au courant nose-to-tail style of eating. As a non-hunter myself, but someone who cares very much about food and cooking, I find his writing and storytelling, not to mention his recipes, engaging, compelling and approachable.

His latest, Buck Buck Moose, is just what it says in the subtitle: recipes and techniques for cooking deer, elk, moose, antelope and "other antlered things." It's no surprise that I appreciate the sense of humor in that title, as well as Hank's meditations on what it means to take a life in order to sustain your own.
"I feel a deep kinship with the animals I hunt; most hunters do. We get to know them in a far deeper way than all but a few other sorts of human: We know their personalities, their foibles, their habits. Where they like to live, what they like to eat, and what they might do in any given situation. Yet most of us take delight in being fooled when a deer or rabbit shows us some new quirk of their behavior. Hunt any animal long enough and it ceases to be the Disneyfied caricature of itself most people know and blossoms into a clever, free-thinking entity—an entity not so different from us." – From "The Hunter's Paradox"
His book tour for Buck Buck Moose will bring him to Portland in early September, and I'd encourage you to attend an event if you can, as well as to buy the book. Here's the schedule.
  • Sept. 10: Book signing and Demo in Portland at the Filson Store.
  • Sept. 11: Butchery demonstration and class in Portland at the Portland Meat Collective. (Sold Out)
  • Sept. 12: Book Dinner in Portland at Elder Hall
Top photo by Holly Heyser.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Camp Stories: Brotherhood of the Travelin' Scones

It's no secret that the muse of Good Stuff NW and, frankly, much of the rest of my life, is my life's partner-in-crime, my husband of 35 years—almost 40 if you're counting from the time we began dating—the meat smoker, baker and cocktail-shaker who makes so many things so delicious around here. Early on we were avid backpackers, but our camping gear has ballooned to include glassware and a cast iron Dutch oven, to which was recently added a cast iron griddle so Dave can make even more incredible breakfasts over the campfire.

Heating the Dutch oven.

Baking has become a consuming passion for him, which means that every two weeks he's making six loaves of the most delicious sourdough bread from a starter he made himself—friends, feel free to chime in here with kudos—inspired by the amazing book by Chad Robertson, Tartine Bread. That means four loaves of white-with-a-pinch-of-wheat, and two loaves of whole wheat or whatever flour he's experimenting with (bags of barley and buckwheat have been seen lurking in the pantry lately).


Whether it's a bread weekend or not, he's always got some additional baking he wants to do. And that includes weekends we're not even at home. No matter where we go now, from the forest to a beach house with a passle of friends, he brings along his flour, a dab of sourdough starter or some ingredient he needs to make bread or rolls or scones or pancakes or…you name it…whatever is possessing his attention at the moment. And, guaranteed, if he makes it, it will be good.

This is roughing it?

One of his go-to recipes at the moment is one for breakfast scones with currants or dried cranberries or whatever dried fruit hasn't been gobbled up in our family's constant foraging for snackage. Warm and fragrant, with a touch of sweetness that begs for a smear of honey or jam, that sunrise shape when it comes steaming out of the oven defines a perfect morning served with butter (or, in his case, a pat of margarine) and a hot, strong cup of coffee.

Currant Scones

3 c. (13 1/2 oz) whole wheat flour (or 2 c. all-purpose, 1 c. whole wheat)
5/8 oz. (20 g) cane sugar
3/4 oz (22 g) brown sugar
2 Tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
8 Tbsp. unsalted butter or margarine
1 c. milk
2 eggs
1/2 c. currants
Extra flour for forming dough

In a gallon zip-lock bag or other container, mix flour, both kinds of sugar, baking powder and salt. Bring along butter, milk, eggs and currants separately, along with parchment paper. If baking in a lidded Dutch oven (footed or one with a trivet/lid lifter), bring briquets and, if available, a laser thermometer. Good heavy welding gloves also come in handy for manipulating the hot cast iron. As a friend said, "Every project requires a tool budget."

To make the scones, put the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl and add the butter or margarine in 1/4" slices. Cut in with a fork or pastry cutter until the mixture is the texture of cornmeal. Stir the currants into the mixture. In a separate bowl, whisk the milk and eggs together. Stir the liquid into the dry mixture and mix until all the flour is moistened. Turn out the mixture onto a floured surface. Knead until the dough is smooth, about 25 kneads—this is a bit more handling than with biscuits. Form the dough into a ball.

Place the ball on a piece of parchment paper,and flatten it with your hands to form a round disk about 10" in diameter. With a bench scraper or a knife slice into  into wedges (we usually make 12 from this recipe) but don’t separate the wedges.

For baking in an oven:
Preheat oven to 375°. Put parchment paper on a baking sheet or rimmed baking pan. Form disk and cut wedges. Place in oven and bake until golden brown, 22-24 minutes.

For baking in a Dutch oven using briquets:
In a chimney starter or in the campfire, place a pile of briquets using this guide to determine the number of briquets needed. On a cleared space on the ground near your campfire ring—make sure there are no flammables nearby and that no people or pets will stumble into the dutch oven—spread about one-third of the briquettes evenly below the Dutch oven and two-thirds on the lid. After 30 to 45 minutes of preheating, remove the lid and, using the laser thermometer, check the temperature of the bottom of the oven. It should be between 350-375°. If it isn't up to temperature, remove any briquets that have burned out and replace them with fresh ones. Once the oven is up to temperature, lift the parchment with the scones (see oven method, above) and place them in the oven and cover with the lid. Every 10 minutes or so, turn the top lid a quarter turn to the right and the oven itself a quarter turn to the left for more even baking. Baking time may vary from a home oven, but check it at about 20 minutes and gauge timing from there.

Monday, August 08, 2016

White Barbecue Sauce: What Alabama Knows

Contributor Jim Dixon of Real Good Food knows his fire, and if he says white barbecue sauce is the real deal, then I'm all in. But he begins this essay with a caveat for all the barbecue essentialists out there.

[Note] Barbecue semantics: Anytime the word barbecue is used somebody will point out that the usage is wrong. Point taken.
Alabama White Barbecue Sauce

Big Bob Gibson created this mayo-based sauce for the chickens he cooked at his namesake Bar-B-Que restaurant in Decatur, Alabama, in 1925. You can buy it bottled right from the source, but it's easy to make. Since tomato-based sauces almost always have some sugar in them, they tend to burn if brushed on during cooking, but Alabama white bbq sauce doesn't. It adds a nicely caramelized coating to whatever you've got on the fire.

I don't actually measure anything when I mix up a batch, so these are approximate quantities. Start with about a cup or mayonnaise (I like Duke's), then add about a quarter cup of Katz Gravenstein apple cider vinegar, a tablespoon of good prepared horseradish (or grate some fresh), the same amount of mustard (Dijon or stoneground), a couple of chopped garlic cloves, several grinds of black pepper and a shot of Crystal hot sauce.

Brush the sauce on meat while it's cooking, use it as a table sauce for the finished product or try it as a dressing for a salad of raw sweet corn cut from the cob tossed with a chopped Walla Walla sweet onion. I like it on grilled pork shoulder steaks (top photo). Cut about a half-inch thick, these have better flavor than any pork chop. If you can't find them or get your butcher to cut some for you, buy some country style boneless "ribs" (not really ribs but chunks of shoulder). They're typically about an inch thick, so cut them in half, pound to flatten and thin a bit more, sprinkle with sea salt, and let sit for at least 15 minutes. Grill over a moderate fire, basting with the white sauce and turning frequently, for about 20 minutes; move to a cooler part of the grill for the last 10 minutes.