Friday, February 16, 2018

Lovely's Fifty-Fifty Chef Nabs Beard Nomination


The James Beard awards are considered the Oscars of the food world. Yesterday one of Portland's most dedicated chefs—and one of my favorite people—Sarah Minnick of Lovely's Fifty-Fifty, was named a semi-finalist in the Best Chef NW category.

Sarah was featured in an article I wrote in 2015 about women chefs who "are turning the tables on business-as-usual by nixing the giant cans of sauces, bags of salad greens and feedlot meats that supply most restaurants, even in the foodie heaven known as Portland. You won’t find big trucks from industrial food distributors pulling up to their doors and burly guys with pallet jacks and hand trucks wheeling crates of supplies shipped in from out of state. Instead, following in the footsteps of chefs like Cathy Whims of Nostrana, these women are working to buy their supplies direct from local farmers, who deliver produce and meats in the backs of beat-up pickups and vans, unloading crates overflowing with fresh produce mere hours after they’ve been harvested from the fields."

From the article:

One look at owner Sarah Minnick’s pizzas will tell you instantly that this chef is serious about farm-fresh produce. Her pizzas are pictures of crave-worthy perfection—circular works of art brimming with local greens, cheeses and a sauce from tomatoes harvested at the peak of their flavor, preserved so her customers can taste summer even deep in a Northwest winter.

You’ll see unusual ingredients like summer squash, quinoa greens, potatoes and local cured meats adorning her pies, in addition to the occasional drizzle of honey from Bee Local, a Portland company whose hives are scattered around the state, taking their flavors from flowers wild and domesticated. Not unlike Sarah herself, who buzzes around local farms and farmers’ markets collecting ingredients like a honeybee collects pollen.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find her handmade pizza dough is made from the whole grains and artisan flours of Camas Country Mill in the central Willamette Valley and organic flour from employee-owned Central Milling in Utah. And she sources the organic custard base for her extraordinary ice cream from Strauss Family Creamery, adding berries and fruit from area farms, along with more exotic flavorings from the leaves of peach, fig and bay.

Looking at her accounts from last year, Minnick said she was able to purchase nearly 90 percent of her ingredients from local sources [now more than 98 percent - KB]. While that may sound like a foolish way to run a small business, if you ask about the economics of buying direct from farmers versus large distributors, she said that the cost works out to be pretty much the same, since farmers are much more careful about the quality of their produce, meaning it’s less work to prep and less of it ends up in the compost.

She’s thrilled to be working directly with farmers, "actually knowing who is growing it and why and how," and finds the enthusiasm of some of Oregon’s younger farmers infectious. "They don’t have a lot of the weird old baggage," she said of their eagerness to try growing new crops.

And after three years of running the kitchen at Lovely’s? "I’m addicted to it," she said. "I love coming into work."

Photos from an event at Ayers Creek Farm.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Bit of Family (and Oregon) History: Mary Alice Beebe Walden


Walking among the gravestones at the top of Portland's Mount Scott on a cold and sunny winter's day, I grasped a small bouquet of daphne, sword ferns and a sprig of Oregon grape with tiny bright green blossoms just beginning to form. I thought it was an appropriate memento to leave at the grave of my great-grandmother, Mary Alice Beebe Walden, whom I'd always heard was an herbalist and midwife in the tiny town of Bridal Veil in the Columbia River Gorge.

I'd found the record of her burial while searching for her name online. Driving to the cemetery, I picked up a map from the office that gave an approximate location, a plot in the older section of the vast hilltop property. The map placed her grave at the bottom of the hill, where the roots of old trees were lifting up some of the markers and other gravestones were partially obscured by mud that had washed down the hill in the winter's rains.

Triangulating the general position of the plot, a bit of wandering brought me to a small, flat slab of rose-colored granite with Mary A. Walden, 1863-1934, carved into it, and the word MOTHER in italicized type underneath. [From the family records I have, she actually died in 1933.] I'm guessing that her son, Carson (or Carsie, as he was called by the family), had chosen this place for her, since a gravestone with his and his wife's names on it was nearby (top photo).

In a short biography written by my father's older sister, Mary Alice was an almost magical presence:

"Nature was her religion. While my grandfather lived, the family attended church faithfully, but after his death, the dome of the sky and the pillars of living trees became their cathedral.

"Extraordinarily tall for her generation, Grandma carried herself tall and proud, as the Indian Princess we children were convinced had been her ancestress. Her blue-back course hair, piercing black eyes, dark sallow skin and high, hawk-nosed profile were considered [signs of] aristocratic beauty when she was young. She was slim, lithe-limbed, deep bosomed and untiring. On the long hikes through her beloved wilderness, her swinging, slightly pigeon-toed gait carried her on for hours, long past the endurance of the most seasoned of woodsmen.

"There were no plants, insects, animals or birds for which Grandma didn’t know both the common and Latin names. From her early years, she would often disappear for hours and, in later years, for days at a time into the wilds. When she emerged it was always with an apron or bark basket full of herbs and medicinal plants. We never knew where she learned the medicinal lore that made her healing powers famous wherever she lived."

The family eventually moved to Portland, at the time a small city of just over 200,000. Near the end her life, my aunt records her grandmother was still in fine fettle:

"In the late summer of 1932, she caught a bus up to the slope of Larch Mountain after arranging for my Mother and Father to pick her up later in the day. About five o’clock, we saw her swinging down the trail, her buckskin skirt and hiking boots soaked through from the showers that had fallen that day. Her floppy felt hat was pushed back on her head, an improvised sapling yoke over her shoulders weighted down with huckleberries in peeled bark baskets. She sang and hallooed to us, her face and hands purple with berry stains.

"Two weeks later, she collapsed and was taken unwillingly to the hospital, where the cancer was diagnosed as beyond remedy. The hospital was not to her liking and the doctors agreed that she would be happiest at home, nursed by her daughters. She died on December 17th.

"As a final gesture, she left instructions that at her funeral the hymns were to be joyous ones. She was to be dressed in the pastel violet gown she had chosen years before as her shroud, and anyone wearing black was not to be admitted to the chapel."

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Your Food, Your Legislature: 2018 Session May Be Short on Agreement


The 2018 session of the Oregon Legislature may end up like the vacation we took to France many years—by that I mean decades—ago. I'd studied maps and read guide books, planning what I was sure would be a leisurely road trip through the French countryside, sipping coffee at sidewalk cafés, staying in small inns and meeting charming locals. While it certainly had moments of leisure and charm, it turned out to be a two-week, cross-country marathon of rushing from one pre-arranged reservation to the next.

In other words, I had bitten off more than we could (comfortably) chew.

Do we want our farms to look like this?

That little tale relates to this year's legislative session in the fact that legislators, by law, have just 35 days to convene, conduct and finish their work in Salem. That's because, in 2010, Oregon went from bi-annual sessions to annual sessions, lasting 160-days in odd-numbered years with the shorter sessions in even-numbered years.

These shorter sessions were originally designed so legislators could take care of budget issues that might arise between the longer sessions. But, of course, politicians being politicians, the agenda often strays beyond that boundary. This year is no different.

Originally the session would have dealt with a devastating budget shortfall that would have befallen the state had Measure 101, the Healthcare Insurance Premiums Tax for Medicaid Referendum—a fee on hospitals and insurance companies to fund Medicaid, which provides healthcare coverage to 1 in 4 Oregonians—not passed.

Or like this?

Though Oregon still faces a $200 to $300 million dollar shortfall due to cuts in federal tax laws passed by the Republican-controlled Congress in Washington, DC, legislators have decided to take up a bill they're calling the Clean Energy Jobs bill (Senate bill SB 1507 and a House version, HB 4001). According to an article in the Oregonian, it would create "a limit on greenhouse gas emissions [that] would require many of Oregon's largest polluters to pay for their emissions by purchasing allowances at an auction. The state would spend the proceeds from the auctions to reduce the financial impact to households, support projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help areas disproportionately impacted by climate change."

In other words, a classic cap-and-trade system.

Though House leaders like Speaker Tina Kotek and Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson are working hard to push it forward, Senate leaders, particularly Senate President Peter Courtney, are already backing away from committing to pass a major piece of legislation on such a short timeline.

And how does this affect issues of the state's food system, which you'd expect to read about here?

Like this?

When establishing this cap on greenhouse gas emissions from industrial sources, it will create a fund to address the impacts of climate change and support climate-friendly farming practices.

"While the amount of money available is unknown at this stage, the bills have the potential to support a wide range of activities and practices on farms that sequester carbon in soils, reduce energy use, encourage irrigation efficiency, and protect both working land and natural areas on farms and ranches," wrote Friends of Family Farmers Policy Director Ivan Maluski. "Farmers are not only on the front lines of experiencing climate change impacts like extreme weather and uncertain water supplies, as land managers we can also be part of the solution."

Or like this?

Not unexpectedly, industrial representatives are working to alter, if not quash, the legislation. Already the state's largest mega-dairies have inserted a loophole to exempt them from reducing, or even reporting, their annual methane emissions. And Shelly Boshart Davis, Monsanto's 2015 Farm Mom of the Year, weighed in on the bill in an op-ed, writing  that she was "dismayed" by legislation she feels would "stifle my ability to invest in sustainable technology and dramatically increase the cost of running my company," complaining about the increase of "$50 per month by some estimates" to her family's business, Boshart Trucking, reported to have annual sales of more than $8 million.

Whether this bill actually makes it to a vote this session or legislators decide to postpone it until 2019, you can get more information and weigh in on this legislation now.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Clif Bar Invests in Developing Northwest Grains



I first heard about The Bread Lab from reading a New York Times article three years ago describing it as a "project to reinvent the most important food in history." It depicted Dr. Stephen Jones, the lab's founder, as looking like "a lovably geeky high school teacher," albeit one bent on nothing less than a revolution in how we think about bread.

From the article:
"What most people picture when they think of flour—that anonymous chalk-white powder from the supermarket—is anathema to Jones. Before the advent of industrial agriculture, Americans enjoyed a wide range of regional flours milled from equally diverse wheats, which in turn could be used to make breads that were astonish­ingly flavorful and nutritious. For nearly a century, however, America has grown wheat tailored to an industrial system designed to produce nutrient-poor flour and insipid, spongy breads soaked in preservatives. For the sake of profit and expediency, we forfeited pleasure and health. The Bread Lab’s mission is to make regional grain farming viable once more, by creating entirely new kinds of wheat that unite the taste and wholesomeness of their ancestors with the robustness of their modern counterparts."
The Bread Lab's Dr. Stephen Jones.

In the intervening years since that article was written, Jones's project, part of Washington State University's College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, has achieved national and international recognition for breeding, testing and rejuvenating forgotten varieties of wheat, barley, buckwheat and rye. It's also helped improve the prospects of farmers in Washington's Skagit Valley, where Jones built his lab in order to be closer to the fields and the farmers who test the grains.

"We’ve seen the addition of seven new businesses and about 200 new jobs because of the Bread Lab," said Patsy Martin, director of the Port of Skagit. "Farmers are making a profit off their crops and value is being added to the crops by new businesses. It’s our goal to have the number of businesses continue to grow and add more good jobs. A resilient agricultural economy will keep the Skagit Valley unique, special and viable into the future."

Dave Hedlin of Hedlin Farms, a Bread Lab partner.

Today Clif Bar and Company, in association with King Arthur Flour, announced the funding of a $1.5 million endowment to enable the Bread Lab to continue its research breeding grains adapted to organic farming practices in perpetuity.

Matthew Dillon, Clif Bar's senior director of agricultural policy and programs (profiled recently here), said, "Public sector land grant universities like Washington State have seen their funding for organic agricultural research cut year after year at the state and federal levels. With the endowment, [Clif Bar and Company] is putting a stake in the ground for organic’s future because we believe the Bread Lab can improve the good that organic brings to farmers, consumers and the planet."

Video and photos from Clif Bar.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Hidden Gem: Milwaukie Cafe and Bottle Shop


When I started writing Good Stuff NW almost twelve years ago, I had no agenda in mind. It was simply an exploration of the blog form as a useful tool in a marketing toolbox, marketing and advertising being my profession at the time. I wrote about this and that, convinced that no one but maybe my mom and a couple of friends would ever know about it (or care).

In those early years I wrote about trips to Seattle or a visit to a restaurant, maybe throwing in a farmers' market shopping trip or two. Definitely recipes and pictures of our first Corgi, Rosey. Gradually the blog took on a life of its own, gaining a small audience and a couple of calls from editors asking if I was interested in writing for them. A column on farmers' markets, a profile here and there.

Look for the mural.

Eventually, as I learned about the concerns of Oregon farmers and the hard work they do to bring food to market, those concerns started making their way into these posts. Restaurant visits waned somewhat, and reports from the legislature in Salem and other issues began to take precedence. (Recipes and Corgis remained.)

But once in awhile I run across a truly remarkable spot, a hidden gem if you will, that deserves mention.

A friend and her husband recently moved to the Milwaukie area and, wanting to meet for coffee, she suggested the Milwaukie Cafe and Bottle Shop, located off  the (or any) beaten track in the Ardenwald neighborhood east of Sellwood. The nondescript stucco building would be easy to miss were it not for the large, colorful mural adorning its side wall, attributed to the talents of Jerry Schmidt and the North Clackamas Arts Guild.

Funky but sincere is one way to describe the ambience of the place, but a glance at the menu ran up against my initial hippie-homey impression. Polenta bowls? Brisket and collards? Homemade biscuits?

What have we here?

I ordered a coffee—Water Avenue is their bean of choice, another "Hmmmm…" moment—and a biscuit with butter and honey. A plate soon arrived, the biscuit halved, the top aslant, brimming with butter, swimming in a pool of honey. A bite through the crunchy crust, a light, buttery, not-too-salty crumb, and I was in.

Checking the website for more info, I found it's the result of the collaboration of two Portland food names, Chauncey Roach and Shea Pirtle, both Nostrana alums with long resumés in local food. So, friends, before the word gets out, I'd get in while the getting's good. The location may keep folks from flocking in too quickly, but I'm pretty sure it'll hit the skillet soon.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Southern Style: Tomato Gravy


Contributor Jim Dixon of Real Good Food loves the Northwest, its people, its farms, its producers and its food, but he has a special fondness and respect for Southern foodways. Here he shares a favorite recipe for a Southern version of gravy.

This is not Italian-American Sunday gravy, the long-cooked tomato sauce used for the week's pasta dishes. Southern tomato gravy has its roots in Appalachia, where the cold winters meant produce had to be put up when it was ready. Tomatoes in the garden meant canned tomatoes for the pantry. Ronni Lundy, one of the founders of the Southern Foodways Alliance and part of the hillbilly diaspora, says that "tomato gravy is a quick winter fix intended to remind you of the sharp tang of the summer garden."

Love that there are lots of roasted tomatoes put away!

And gravy, traditionally made with flour-thickened drippings from some kind of cooked meat, makes a little something extra from a few scraps, something that any cook can appreciate. Gravy adds flavor to simple, filling foods like rice, grits, biscuits or potatoes. While you could use just olive oil for this tomato gravy, some bacon grease will give it the real flavor of Appalachia. Tomato gravy was traditionally served with cornbread, rice, or biscuits, but it's also great with beans, especially red peas.

Chop an onion and a couple of cloves of garlic and cook them with a good pinch of salt in a few tablespoons of bacon grease or extra virgin olive oil (or a mix of both) for a few minutes, preferably in a cast iron skillet. (Sometimes I'll also add a little chopped celery and some kind of pepper, often a seeded and chopped jalapeño.) Sprinkle about a tablespoon of flour into the skillet, stir it in and cook for another minute or two until it just begins to color. Add a 14-oz. can of crushed or diced tomatoes (I like Pomi brand) [You can also use a quart of those tomatoes you roasted this summer. - KB] and a small drizzle of cane syrup or sorghum syrup, if you have any. Add a healthy amount of freshly ground black pepper, more salt if needed, and simmer for about 15 minutes. It should be thick, like, well, gravy.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

In Season: Eating Well in Winter


Despite what you think, true winter in the Pacific Northwest, at least as far as most of the country is concerned, is a fleeting thing. Yes, we may have a few freezes and snowstorms, but not like New England where snowplows—what are those, you might ask?—pile up banks of the stuff that last well into spring. And thank goodness we don't have the hurricanes, tornadoes and extreme flooding that many areas experience on a regular basis.

My six-foot-tall mother-in-law next to a snowbank in northern Maine.

Of course, with the unknowns brought on by climate change (and our denial of it), all of that could change in the future.

But this year, at least according to produce guy and self-described Fruit Monkey, Josh Alsberg of Rubinette Produce, we can look forward to spring things like nettles, wild mushrooms and fiddleheads, plus herbs like sorrel and chervil, to start appearing as early as March, a mere eight weeks away.

Until then? "Roots and citrus!" says Alsberg.

Beets, yes, but don't waste those greens!

By which he means colorful varieties of beets—red, gold and stripey Chioggia—as well as the knobby Gilfeather turnip, a half-rutabaga, half-turnip hybrid that is a favorite of local chefs, tracing its lineage to Gilfeather Farm in Wardsboro, Vermont. Rutabagas, turnips, celery root and storage potatoes will also be appearing on farmers' market tables over the next few weeks, as will onions, kohlrabi and locally grown white and purple daikon. Winter radishes will also be available, like the watermelon radishes from Black Locust Farm and black radishes from several farms, including Sauvie Island Organics.

There are plenty of seasonal greens available, too. Think mustard greens, cabbages, beet greens, kale, collards, local chicories and gorgeous, deep red heads of radicchio. Gathering Together Farm and Groundwork Organics are growing Kalettes, purple-green, rapini-like florets that are a hybrid of kale and brussels sprouts, with a flavor that shines when roasted or stir-fried.

On the citrus front, I have big bowls of tangerines and Meyer lemons sitting on my counter right now, as fragrant as any store-bought potpourri or essential oils (and not as toxic to pets) and they're edible, to boot! The Meyer lemons will be used for my yearly batch of preserved lemons, to be parceled out in savory dishes, relishes and salads over the next few months, and if I can manage to spare a few, maybe some lemon sorbet.

Alsberg is in hog heaven right now, gleeful at the prospect of citrus season. Several varieties of mandarin oranges and tangerines are beginning to appear, varieties like Shasta Gold, Murcott, Pixies and the teensy Kishu, with blood oranges, navel oranges and Cara Cara navel oranges rolling in now. He's also starting to see a rainbow of grapefruit on distributors' lists, and said that word on the street is that the white grapefruit called Mellow Gold is super juicy and sweeter than most. Pomegranates and kumquats have been in stores since Christmas, and we should be seeing local kiwis making an appearance soon.

Kabocha squash is a personal fave.

Winter squash is starting to clear out of his lists, but he said local growers should have plenty of kabocha, Kuri, butternut and acorn squash through mid-February. After that, though, he warns that the squash you see in stores will be from Mexico. "Enjoy them now" is his mantra. Look for recipes in my Squash Chronicles series.

Rubinette Produce is a vendor inside Providore Fine Foods, an advertiser on this blog. Josh gives his advice quarterly on what's coming in from local farms and what we can expect to see on store shelves.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Craving Carnitas


I'd been jonesing for tacos for days, and just hadn't got around to making them. Then, fortuitously, some friends said they were going to be in the 'hood one evening, which gave me the perfect excuse to try a new method for making carnitas. (And yes, I'm one of those people who tries out new recipes on guests, much to the chagrin of my mother who considered it much too risky.)

I'd already pulled a four-pound pork shoulder out of the freezer, it being a weekend and the perfect time for a nice slow braise on the stove. So I picked up some cotija cheese made by Albany's Ochoa's Queseria, cabbage for slaw, plus an avocado, salsa and tortillas. (I'm a huge fan of the organic tortillas from Three Sisters Nixtamal. It's a local company that makes masa using a traditional process called nixtamalization, where dried corn kernels are soaked in slaked lime, then ground and made into dough.)

Carnitas, which means "little meats," is made by simmering chunks of pork with citrus and spices for several hours until it's tender and on the verge of falling apart. I had some whey left over from making ricotta, so I decided to use it for the braising liquid, since the acids in the whey would help to break down and tenderize the meat. The method I used then calls for shredding the meat, roasting it in the oven (or in a cast iron pan on the grill) until any remaining liquid evaporates and the meat is crispy.

Warming the tortillas on a griddle is quick and easy, though I'm always tempted to pile them with heaps of fixin's, but exercising a teensy bit of restraint is worth the reward of the perfect bite, instead of bursting the taco or losing too much on your plate. Plus it means I can enjoy a few more of those longed-for tacos!

Carnitas

4 lbs. boneless pork shoulder
1 qt. whey, water or stock
1 onion, sliced in half lengthwise, then crosswise into 1/8” slices
8 cloves garlic
2 tsp. oregano
4 bay leaves
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 orange, quartered
1 Tbsp. kosher salt

Put all ingredients into large Dutch oven and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer for 2-3 hours until meat is starting to fall apart and liquid is almost gone. If there is quite a bit of liquid left, remove the meat to a roasting pan, disposing of the orange peel and bay leaves. Bring the liquid in the pot to a boil and reduce until there is less than 1 cup remaining.

While liquid reduces, heat oven to 450°. When liquid has reduced, pour over meat in roasting pan and place in oven for 20-30 minutes or until it starts to brown. Shred any remaining large pieces.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Squash Chronicles: Kabocha Glazed with White Miso and Maple Butter



It's all squash, all the time here at Good Stuff NW…or so you might surmise from the preponderance of Oscar-worthy starring roles that winter squash has been playing in this series of posts. My passion has been aided and abetted by the series of mouthwatering videos like the one above, produced by Lane Selman of the Culinary Breeding Network and the inimitable Chef Tim Wastell.

Squash season is still upon us, and you'll be finding these gorgeous orbs at local markets and greengrocers through February. Until then I'll be cramming as many of them into our dinner rotation as I can.

I'm particularly intrigued by the miso butter glaze that Tim demonstrates in the video above, since I've sworn to start exploring the possibilities of the fermented umami-bomb of miso in the coming year with the help of locally produced Jorinji misos. Get the recipe for the steamed kabocha glazed with white miso and maple above, and check out the rest of the Squash Chronicles.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

USDA to Revoke Organic Animal Welfare Rule



The video above shows what organic egg production looks like at one Oregon factory farm. Crowded into closed-in barns, with "outside access" limited to a roofed-in, screened, cement-floored patio with panels preventing the chickens from even seeing outside, is not what people imagine when they see the words "cage free" on the carton.

And it's about to get a lot worse unless you act now.

Factory farmed pigs.

The demand from consumers for organic products has caused that segment of the grocery industry to explode. It's caught the attention of large agribusiness, which has been seeing its portion of the market starting to decline.

A new rule, carefully developed over the last decade, setting consistent and humane animal welfare standards for organic production, was about to go into effect when the current administration delayed its implementation. Over the holidays, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue announced he was going to completely withdraw the new rule from consideration, a step that corporate agribusiness has been pushing for.

The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is accepting comments on its decision through Wednesday, January 17, so action is needed immediately. The Center for Food Safety has provided a simple form to submit a comment on this rule. It may sound alarmist, but the integrity of the organic label, including our health, and that of our communities and the environment, is at stake. I sincerely hope you consider signing it.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Ricotta-Style Cheese at Home? Creamy and Dreamy!


Writing this blog has been full of slap-upside-the-head, "D'oh!" moments over the years. There was the time someone mentioned making a vegetable stock out of corn cobs. And then when I discovered how simple it was, not to mention how much more delicious it tastes, to make your own peanut butter. (Got five minutes and a blender?)

Four cups milk? Check.

I'm constantly asking myself: How could it have taken me so long to figure this stuff out?

Currently it's my quest to duplicate the taste of the kimchi that I experienced eons ago as a college student in Korea, as well as to learn about fermentation. What a journey!

Add lemon juice and…magic!

So this last week, with friends coming for dinner, I decided to make a big tray of lasagne, something I've done a zillion times before. A few years ago I would have bought a container of ricotta and slathered it on the next-to-the-top layer to give a creamy, oozy richness to this Italian-American classic. But then my husband developed a problem with dairy, and with lactose-free commercial ricotta not readily available, I had to eschew that particular ingredient for several years.

Then I read somewhere that it was super easy to make your own at home. D'oh!

A layer in lasagne? Oh yeah!

While, according to my friend, cookbood author Nancy Harmon-Jenkins, traditional Italian ricotta is made from the recooked whey left over from cheesemaking (ri-cotta means "recooked"), this method makes a delicious fresh cheese that's as good or better than most major store-bought brands. With the availability of lactose-free whole milk (thank you, Organic Valley), all it took was some googling and I had the basic idea. My first attempt used white vinegar as the curdling agent, which some recipes said had a neutral flavor. It was the right texture but I thought it gave the final product a funny flavor. Talking with some other cooks, almost to a person they recommended lemon juice instead.

I tried it, fiddled with the timing a bit to get the texture I wanted and, like magic, the creamy softness was back in our lives. And it's so dang easy, I can guarantee that it's going to start showing up on crostini, mixed in pasta and dolloped on salads.

Homemade Ricotta-Style Cheese

4 c. whole milk
1/3 c. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp. salt

In a saucepan, heat milk over medium heat (you don’t want to heat it too quickly). Stirring occasionally to keep it from sticking and measuring often with an instant read thermometer, bring milk to 200°.  When it reaches 200°, remove from heat and add lemon juice and salt. Stir a couple of times to combine and let it sit for 5 minutes.

While it’s sitting, put cheesecloth in a fine mesh strainer over a bowl. Pour the contents of the pan into the lined strainer and drain, saving the watery whey. Depending on how dry you want your ricotta to be, let it sit for two to 20 minutes. A shorter time will give you creamier ricotta. Taste for salt and adjust.

Note: Save the whey (the watery liquid left after draining) and feed it to your chickens or pigs. If you don't have livestock, you can feed it to your family, as well. It's very nutritious and is great added to soups, stews and sauces that benefit from a slight milkiness. (Think chowders, or a potato-leek soup.) One reader said she used the leftover whey to cook pork loin in the crock pot for pulled pork, which confirms what I'd read about the acids in the whey helping to break down meat. So I used it for making carnitas, and it worked fabulously. Try it!

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Oregon's Big Milk Problem Goes National


I got an e-mail a few weeks ago from Matthew Wheeland, editor of Civil Eats, a website offering "critical thought about the American food system" that seeks to "publish stories that shift the conversation around sustainable agriculture in an effort to build economically and socially just communities." (I often describe it as a national version of Good Stuff NW, only without the recipes and Corgis.)

Wheeland asked to repost the story I wrote for Edible Portland about the mega-dairies that are flocking to Oregon, an issue facing many other small communities across the country. Of course I said yes, and you can read it here today. And, once you're there, please consider subscribing to this valuable news source. I do.

Also, the timing is particularly appropriate because the 2018 session of the Oregon legislature is gearing up, and it's a good time to revisit the issue of the environmental risks from these factory farms, particularly to groundwater used for drinking and the toxic emissions that are fouling the air in the Eastern Columbia River Gorge. Look for more reports coming soon in the series Your Food, Your Legislature.

Top photo of factory farm dairy barn, courtesy Center for Food Safety.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

A Corny Sidekick For Your Next Pot of Soup


One thing I love to do is mix up a batch of cornbread to accompany a big pot of soup or stew. As simple as it is to make, it doesn't always happen because it's even easier to slice off a few hunks of the fabulous sourdough bread that Dave cranks out like clockwork every couple of weeks. But there's nothing more satisfying than throwing some simple ingredients in a bowl, giving them a few gentle turns by hand and pouring it into a pie pan, then pulling it out of the oven just before ladling out the soup.

Made with Ayers Creek 8-Row Flint Corn.

Of course, I'm a devotée of the coarse cornmeal ground from the organic flint corn grown by Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm, with its flecks of red, orange and yellow and its deeply corn-y flavor, but regular cornmeal works, too. I've also baked it using their Peace No War—PNW, as in Pacific Northwest, get it?—purple cornmeal (top photo), which gives it a mahogany tinge and is no less flavorful. But whatever cornmeal you choose, and whatever form you choose (it's wonderful as a loaf, in a round cake or pie tin, or even muffins), definitely give this a try with your next pot of soup.

Check out these fantastic, simple soup recipes.

Cheesy Cornbread

1 c. flour
1 c. cornmeal
3 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 c. milk or buttermilk
2 Tbsp. melted butter
2 eggs
1 c. sharp cheddar cheese
1 large green chile, chopped (optional)

Preheat oven to 400°.

In large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients. Stir in milk and melted butter. Add eggs, cheese and chile (if using). Grease and flour baking pan or muffin tin. Pour in batter. Bake 18 to 20 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

Note: You can also add cumin, a teaspoon of red pepper flakes, some chopped green onions or one-third cup drained corn. It's a very flexible recipe.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Squash Chronicles: Black Futsu Salad with Radicchio



It's all squash, all the time here at Good Stuff NW…or so you might surmise from the preponderance of Oscar-worthy starring roles that winter squash has been playing in recent posts.

Much of the blame for this cucurbit-heavy obsession can be laid at the feet of the fellow in the video above, the estimable Chef Tim Wastell and his henchperson/enabler Lane Selman of the Culinary Breeding Network, I'm happy to share the results of their collaboration here.

Get the recipe for the Black Futsu Salad with Radicchio above, and check out the rest of the Squash Chronicles.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Waiter, There's a Walnut in My Drink!


I've just made my third batch of nocino, that motor oil-dark Italian liqueur made from unripe walnuts, green as spring grass, hard as rocks and, when split open, with the nutshell discernable but not yet hardened. Fortunately for Portlanders, there were lots of walnut trees planted for landscaping purposes from the city's founding and well into the 20th century. Which means that in late summer, there are lots of walnuts (un)ripe for the picking.

Unripe green walnuts.

Fortunately for me, I happen to have a neighbor who knows what to do with these beauties. Jim Dixon has been making nocino from the walnuts on the very large tree in his parking strip for a very long time. A few years ago he invited me over to gather nuts and learn to make nocino, a skill I was very anxious to develop. (Read that story and get Jim's recipe here.)

Infusing in alcohol on the patio until fall.

That first batch was spectacular, a rich, dark elixir that smelled and tasted of walnuts and that, six years later, is still some of the best I've ever had, though there's only a thimble-full left. I made another attempt two years ago, but it somehow never came together the same way. I found out why when I made this year's nocino.

After draining off the solids, it was time to add the sugar syrup and, reading the recipe carefully to make sure I got the balance right, I realized that I'd misread the recipe two years ago. D'oh! So I quickly got out that batch, which I hadn't had the heart to throw out, and added in the missing portion of syrup. È eccellente!

Ready to be strained.

Between the two batches I now have around three gallons of liqueur in my cellar, which brings me to the point of this post. I've run across several articles touting the excellent cocktails that can be made with the addition of a touch of nocino, and Dave and I have been diligently working our way through them.

If you've been wanting to try nocino, there are several commercial varieties out there, but I can honestly say that none have measured up to Jim's homemade version, which includes nothing but alcohol and walnuts, eschewing the exotic spices that many add. But please, feel free to experiment with the following cocktails and, if you're so inclined, find a neighbor with a tree and make your own nocino next year!

Nocino Old-Fashioned
Adapted from Imbibe magazine

2 oz. bourbon
3/4 oz. nocino
4 dashes orange bitters
Amarena cherries

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass half full of ice. Stir until chilled. Strain into tumbler with two fresh ice cubes. Garnish with two amarena cherries. Serve.

* * *

Nocino Manhattan

2 oz. Old Overholt rye whiskey
1 oz. nocino
3 dashes Angostura bitters
Amarena cherries

Chill cocktail glasses in freezer. Fill pint glass or small mixing pitcher half full of ice. Add whiskey, nocino and bitters. Stir 30 seconds. Take cocktail glasses out of freezer. Strain liquor into glass. Drop two cherries into each glass. Serve.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Crabby Politics Put Dungeness Crab Fishery at Risk


Lyf Gildersleeve (above), owner of Flying Fish, a sustainable seafood retailer in Providore Fine Foods, is a second-generation fishmonger and a vocal advocate for national fisheries policy. Two bills before Congress right now, H.R. 200 and H.R. 3588, weaken America’s key fishing law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). At the end of Lyf's report is a link to contact your congressional representatives, which I urge you to do.

Fisheries policy has a responsibility to be sustainable, that is, to ensure that future generations will have access to the same resources we’ve had the luxury of taking for granted. Fisheries policy also has a responsibility to the people who make a living from the fisheries, whether directly at sea or indirectly at market. Policy needs to provide safety nets for fishermen, working waterfronts and the communities within the fishing industry. Policy must evolve and adapt to a changing industry, climate change and market needs.

Since its inception over 40 years ago, bipartisan support has been the hallmark of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). The MSA is the federal fisheries law which creates safeguards to protect our fisheries and the communities supported by them. Unfortunately, the current political climate in Washington DC does not give equal consideration to both sides of the equation with regard to the MSA and its much-needed reauthorization.

The west coast’s Dungeness crab season similarly requires a two-sided approach: one side that considers consumer options, the other which considers fishery and ecosystem issues. Fortunately for the health of the fishery, and unfortunately for the fishermen and the consumer in Oregon, bipartisan considerations delayed the 2017-18 season.

In fisheries policy on a broad scale and in Dungeness crab practice locally, the equation is thrown out of balance when only one side of the equation is considered. A one-sided approach has potentially dangerous effects to both the environment and the livelihood of the communities dependent on the ocean.

As with most fish, objectives for the Dungeness crab consumer boil down to two things: safety and value. This year, the Oregon Dungeness crab season was delayed because the crabs had not reached market size. This was unfortunate for the crab fishing fleet, but it was a safeguard to protect the ecosystem and the consumer. Hard decisions always require trade-offs, but if the decisions account for all sides of the equation, then we can stand strongly and confidently. If all sides are not considered, somebody will get an unfair treatment, whether that's the fishery or the people whose livelihoods depend on it.

Total allowable catch quotas have long existed to sustain fisheries, including the Dungeness crab, for future generations. Sadly, the current bill to reauthorize the MSA, H.R. 200, introduced by Republican Congressman Don Young from Alaska, emphasizes “increasing flexibility”—i.e. it guts accountability in favor of the bottom line.

Pushing this version of the Magnuson-Stevens Act insults the spirit and legacy of the act, which has set the standard for fisheries policy worldwide. It weakens America’s key fishing law—it’s bad for fish, it’s bad for oceans, and it’s bad for coastal communities. It creates very real potential for overfishing and the not-very-long term instability of fishing communities.

Last week, the House Committee on Natural Resources voted in favor of legislation sponsored by Congressman Young (H.R. 200), and his Republican colleague from Louisiana, Garret Graves, who is promoting H.R. 3588, the Red Snapper Act, that wholly undermine the MSA. These two bills disable the science-based data on total allowable catch quotas, and the euphemistic “flexibility” disempowers the law that has allowed several fishery stocks to rebuild from the verge of collapse.

We have a chance—and an obligation—to learn from the tragic overfishing that depleted stocks on the East coast and around the world. These failed policies have decimated the wild Atlantic salmon to levels of extinction, and the populations of several ground fish across the east are so low they can’t rebuilt. The already troubled red snapper, an icon of the Gulf Coast, stands to suffer the same fate in light of Congressman Graves’ bill.

The panel’s top Democrat, Raul Grijalva of Arizona, had this to say: “Ocean management is about sustainable use and enjoyment, not just making environmentalists unhappy. Like most of the bills advanced by the leadership of this committee, this bill is extreme and has no future in the Senate. Until my counterparts decide to take the issues in our jurisdiction more seriously, we’re going to keep wasting time on unpopular bills that have no chance of becoming law.”

While this is certainly encouraging—and from a Congressman from the desert, no less—we still need to apply pressure and call, write, email, tweet our elected officials. These disastrous bills have reached the Senate, which has a chance to stand up to such indecency.

We can do better. We have the power. Do it for the environment. Do it for the fishermen and communities whose livelihood depends on a healthy ocean. Do it for your grandchildren. Defend the ocean and the important part it plays in all of our lives. Contact your Senators and tell them to vote NO to H.R. 200 and H.R. 3588.

In Oregon:
Top photo courtesy Flying Fish.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Party Favor: Crab and Artichoke Dip


I want to slide in a quick suggestion for your next holiday party, whether it's at your place or you need to take a little something to contribute to a gathering. It's a throwback to the days of yore and Madmen-style, cocktail-fueled evenings, where a table might be laden with tiny canapés made with Ritz Crackers, processed cheese and pimento olives.

Cheese balls were in fashion, sitting like an errant meteor on a china plate. My own mother was enamored of them—I think she really loved the nuts studding the exterior— and standbys like clam and onion dips orbiting big bowls heaped with salty potato chips. Chafing dishes, with little tins of Canned Heat burning beneath them, kept all manner of hors d'oeuvres like meatballs piping hot (sometimes erring on the side of molten), with rainbow-colored toothpicks nearby, the better to spear the choicest bits.

The warm crab and artichoke dip below would have fit right in on that table, even more so because it relies on canned food products and the stalwart presence of mayonnaise to bind it all together. You could substitute local Dungeness crab meat, farmers' market artichokes and homemade mayonnaise to make it, too, but I like the simplicity of the original in its all-American salute to convenience paired with deliciousness. And I know my mother would approve.

Hot Artichoke and Crab Dip
Adapted from New Seasons Market

1 14-oz. can artichoke hearts
1/4 c. capers
6 oz. crab meat (fresh is better and cheaper if you buy a whole crab and crack it yourself, but canned works, too)
1 c. parmesan, finely grated
1 c. mayonnaise
6 whole wheat crackers (like Triscuits), optional

Drain and chop artichokes. If using canned crab, drain well. Crush crackers to fine crumbs with a rolling pin.

Combine crab with artichokes, capers, cheese and mayonnaise. Sprinkle with crushed crackers. Put in baking dish and bake for at least 20 minutes at 350°. When slightly browned and bubbly, serve with your favorite crackers, baguette slices or tortilla chips. (Also makes a great stuffing for salmon fillet or chicken breast.)

Squash Chronicles: Spaghetti Squash Cacio e Pepe



It's all squash, all the time here at Good Stuff NW…or so you might surmise from the preponderance of Oscar-worthy starring roles that winter squash has been playing in recent posts. Much of the blame for this cucurbit-heavy obsession can be laid at the feet of the fellow in the video above, the estimable Chef Tim Wastell and his henchperson/enabler Lane Selman of the Culinary Breeding Network.

Tim Wastell showing proper squash butchery technique.

A couple of years ago the pair held a Squash Party for which Tim concocted a mind-blowing squash ice cream that disrupted the comfy little niche I had created in my mind for winter squash. I came home and immediately made a winter squash sorbet and, damn him, it was stunning! It also began my quest for what else this herbaceous vine might be capable of.

Selman and Wastell recently held a Squash Sagra in which Wastell demonstrated squash butchery to a rapt audience. It's also where I learned of a series of videos of Tim making fabulously simple dishes using these much-maligned gourds. Filmed by my friend Jeremy Fenske, they are short and sweet and sure to inspire you. And, I hope, to blow apart that little niche you might have for this amazing food.

Get the recipe for Squash Cacio e Pepe. Find more squash recipes here.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Farm Bulletin: Oregon’s Aci Sivri Cayennes


Nothing at Ayers Creek Farm is unconsidered, from the wetland to the predatory birds to the varieties of pole beans. Neither are things precious—if a crop doesn't produce or too many other farms begin offering a similar product or it's too much trouble, out it goes. And that includes au courant terms like "heirloom" and "artisan" (seriously, don't bring it up), which is addressed in this essay on the cayenne pepper that Anthony and Carol Boutard have been working diligently for years to perfect to their specifications. 

Oregon’s Aci Sivri is a cayenne introduced from Turkey in the 1980s. The Turkish name aci sivri biber simply means a hot long (cayenne-type) pepper, rather than a specific variety. Turkey produces a lot of peppers, cayennes and sweet, about 7% of the world’s production, ranking second to China. Peppers are grown in the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Sea regions of the country. In Turkey, cayennes are used both pickled when green and dried when ripe.

Capsicum calyxes, from left: Oregon’s Aci Sivri, Costeño Rojo, Chiltepec, Joe’s Long Cayenne, Shishito, Italian sweet

It is fashionable to tag the honorific “heirloom” on all manner of crop varieties, and aci sivri hasn’t been spared. As any crop grown for more than 25 years meets the definition regardless of quality, the term is well nigh meaningless. Some up the ante by describing the pepper as a "centuries old Turkish heirloom." Given the generic name and the absence of a geographic link, that embellishment is a stretch. As a result of the Turkish diaspora, people of Turkish descent live in Spain, Italy, Germany, the United States and elsewhere. Just as an Oregonian returned with some seeds of a cayenne that impressed him from his time in Turkey, seeds travel in both directions and it is just as likely that seeds from a fine cayenne, perhaps sent by a Cornell graduate student to her family, found their way from Upstate New York to a Black Sea village in Turkey where it was welcomed. Over the past five centuries, seeds have been an international commodity, passed around by researchers and seed companies, as well as families. The idea of a crop frozen in time like an antique tea cup or souvenir spoon is a fatuous conceit.

The berries of the Nightshade family, the Solanaceae, have marvelous calyxes (above left). The eggplant has a large, tough, often thorny one, the tomatillo’s papery calyx continues to grow after pollination and envelopes the fruit (below right), while the tomato has a wiry, glandular and reflexed version. The calyxes of peppers are akin to hats, varying in size and shape, and are part of the fruit’s genetic fingerprint. The calyx of Oregon’s Aci Sivri forms a distinctive hat that extends beyond and over the fruit, worn jauntily like a French beret. Very different from the long cayennes that sport a tight calyx over the ears like a flapper’s cloche, or others that have merest of beanies. Or the bell pepper with a calyx that is proportionately similar to a yarmulke. And to think, before this digression you all probably never gave a second thought to the Solanaceous calyx and all its forms.

Tomatillos in their husks.

Not all peppers sold as "Aci Sivri" by seed companies or in photos posted as aci sivri biber have the beret-like calyx possessed by Oregon’s version. Many have the flapper's cloche or a beanie instead. This observation confirms our observation that aci sivri biber is not a well-defined variety, but rather a general cayenne type with a lot of diversity. For example, some catalogue entries suggest that the heat of the pepper is variable and can be very hot. Others describe the pepper as exceeding eight inches long, or producing an astounding 50 fruits per plant. Undoubtedly, others have brought to the United States a Turkish pepper called aci sivri. The descriptions and photos suggest they are very different peppers from Oregon’s.

Under its jaunty calyx, Oregon’s Aci Sivri is well-defined in terms of quality. It has a sweet flavor with a rich chocolate-like complexity. The heat is consistently gentle if the interior ribs, the placental tissue, are removed. You can be generous in its use and the whole family can enjoy its flavor. The pepper is a bit more frisky when the ribs are retained. Even then, the heat is civilized; it doesn’t slap you in the face or cause torment in its descent down the gullet. Although the Scoville scale treats the "heat" of peppers as a linear phenomenon, it is not. The heat comes from capsaicin and at least 10 other very similar compounds called capsaicinoids. Variations in the quantities of each of these compounds will alter the intensity and character of the heat. In Oregon’s Aci Sivri, the character of the capsaicinoid blend is amiable.

Joe's Long cayennes in the field at Ayers Creek with their cloche-like calyxes.

Unlike souvenir spoons and antique tea cups whose traits remain static through time, crops evolve and adapt to their new home. Oregon’s Aci Sivri has been here for three decades and is clearly now an American of Turkish descent. (And it is also officially an Oregon heirloom, having met the mere 25-year hurdle for that banal and meaningless honorific.) We have had a hand in shaping the pepper in our own seed production. Of particular importance for us are the plant’s architecture, early ripening and the darkest red fruits. In terms of architecture, we have been selecting for plants that hold their fruits aloft of the ground rather than having the fruits dragging about on the soil. Good posture is critical where the late summer is often wet. It means the fruits remain clean and do not rot at the tip as wet weather approaches in early autumn. Good quality peppers are more important to us than high yield, and those that ripen during the warmer days of September have better flavor. We look for plants that are modest in their productivity. In our experience, the darker fruits have a more complex flavor when dry.

One of the advantages of being a farmer-breeder, we can be fussy and every year select ten or so perfect specimens for seed from a field of over 500 plants. The fruits for seed are the first we harvest. If we were growing the plants for seed only, we could never be as selective. And we wouldn’t be so concerned about plants that have their fruits slouch on the soil, a bit tardy or never get quite as red as the others. We could change the pepper’s name as is our wont, but Aci Sivri has a nice ring to it and we have no better idea, so we are content to add the possessive modifier and leave it at that.

There is a wonderful moment in one of Chekhov’s short stories where an officer greets his lover after a few drinks with his colleagues. She savors the warm bite of the pertsovka—pepper vodka—as he greets her with a kiss. When we first tasted Oregon’s Aci Sivri, the scene came to mind immediately and made sense. In the story, the pepper was amorous not aggressive. Hvorostovsky not Putin. Anthony sat down in Powell’s one day determined to find that short story. He was soon stymied by the sheer volume of Chekhov's short stories, compounded by the multitude of collections and translations; after an hour, he left cross-eyed. Upon reflection, it is better to retain the memory of the gentle bite of a pertsovka-infused kiss without a plot’s unnecessary complications or disappointments.

Read more on the controversy over the heirloom label.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Food Heroes: Matthew Dillon, Seed Guy


It all goes back to growing up on his family's small farm in Nebraska just outside of Omaha. That four-acre farm, which his family called a "hobby farm," was where the Dillon family raised vegetables and kept a few cattle. Young Matthew and his siblings would harvest the vegetables from the fields, then carry them up and down the road that ran in front of their house that cut through the heart of Nebraska's rich agricultural land, selling armloads of the crops to their neighbors.

Matthew was a smart kid, and his boredom with school, which he refers to as "an 1890’s model of education," caused him to get a reputation as a rabble-rouser. "I’d definitely gotten in trouble for vandalism, smoking pot and all those things," he said. "That’s why I was getting in trouble—because I wasn’t challenged. I was totally bored."

Mount Michael Benedictine School.

So his parents plucked him out of public school and sent him to a nearby boarding school called Mount Michael Benedictine School. "It was competitive to get in, you had to start as a freshman, he said. "100 percent of students going off to college, 90 percent on scholarships, highest ACT and SAT scores in the state."

The monks also had a three-acre organic farm.

But compared to the vegetables his family grew, "the carrots and the produce were pretty crappy looking," he remembers thinking. "I guess this is good for the planet, but it doesn’t look very edible."

After graduating from Mount Michael, Dillon went to the University of California, studying the evolution of human consciousness through a special outdoor wilderness program on the impacts of the human psyche on ecosystems.

Then his father got sick. Cancer.

"He'd had an agricultural supply business, everything from veterinary health supplies to pesticides, you name it, the whole kit and caboodle," Dillon said.

Matthew dropped out of school to help his mother take care of his dad and worked to help pay the family's bills.

Platte River Valley in Nebraska.

"My dad was so healthy. Why is he, of all people, getting non-Hodgkins lymphoma?" he asked himself. "I started looking into it, and the Platte River Valley of Nebraska has this insanely high rate of non-Hodgkins lymphoma because of nitrates in the wells [from] pesticide runoff."

Dillon's father died shortly thereafter, and it began to dawn on him that the pesticides his father sold and that all the farmers in the area used might have contributed to not only his dad's disease, but to his own serious illness at the age of 12, eventually diagnosed as an endocrine disruption and after which he never grew again.

He became intrigued with agriculture. He got a job working on urban garden projects in and around Omaha, plus a side business running an electronics smuggling operation in Russia (read more about that here).

Working on the garden projects, "I realized that the only way I was going to be close to my dad again was if I started growing food," Dillon said. "The thing that he loved the most was that hobby farm. He liked that more than the business. He just liked growing food, he liked making food, [and] it became really clear to me that I needed to go and get my hands in the soil."

Touring a field study for the OSA.

An internship at an 18-acre organic farm in California's Anderson Valley introduced Dillon to an integrated approach to agriculture, where everything was different from the practices his family had used in Nebraska. But one thing struck him as odd: the seed on the organic farm came from the same sources as the seed that the conventional growers used back home.

"All of the inputs are different, our approach to caring for the soil is different, but the seed was the same," he said. Other than some heirloom seed from the Abundant Life Seed Foundation and the Seed Savers Exchange, which he said was beautiful but not agronomically strong, the bulk of the farm's seed came from conventional sources.

"Why is that?" Dillon wondered. "Where’s the organic seed?"

"So I got kind of obsessed, as I do, about the concept that you breed for the environment of intended use, and you breed for the management system of intended use," he said. "Organic environments and organic management systems were different."

That line of inquiry sent him up to Port Townsend, Washington, to the headquarters of Abundant Life, where he volunteered almost full time, eventually landing a spot on their board of directors. Having lost its executive director, the board asked Dillon to take the position as interim director, which led to his accepting the position of executive director.

And that's when the fire hit. A story in the Capital Press from August 8, 2003, summarized the damage:
"An early Monday morning fire in Port Townsend, Washington, that destroyed a landmark building, home to the oldest grocery store in the state, also destroyed Abundant Life Seed Foundation’s office, its extensive library and thousands of its seeds—hundreds of which were one-of-a-kind varieties. Matthew Dillon, executive director of the foundation, describes it as the loss of 29 years of collecting and stewarding germ plasm."
Reflecting on the effect of the devastating loss almost 15 years later, Dillon is sanguine.

At Wild Garden Seed in Philomath.

"By that time I’d met [Dr. John] Navazio and [Wild Garden Seed's Frank] Morton," he said. "All these guys who were saying, yeah, heirlooms are great and everything, but we can have the best heirlooms and we can start breeding in disease resistance and making these crops more workhorses and more robust. And that just intrigued me."

Dillon and the plant breeders and contract growers at Abundant Life had already started to improve some of the heirloom varieties, but their work wasn't without controversy, even within the organic community.

"We’d get angry letters, like 'how dare you not save the seed just as it is, how dare you make a cross or how dare you make a selection!'" he said, shaking his head. "It was intense.

"The whole thing was that heirlooms are not like these gifts handed down by the gods from Olympus to our grandparents. They evolved with those practices, intentionally or not."

Dillon feels that, in general, agricultural history hasn’t given credit to the farmer innovator, saying that farmers and gardeners have always riffed on what they find in their gardens and made selections based on their own preferences. He believes that's where we got the diversity of the heirloom and heritage seed that we find in catalogs and garden stores today.

"Our whole thing was the heirlooms of tomorrow," he said. "That’s all we were doing. In the long run, obviously, a lot of folks have embraced that and it’s become the focus of the alternative seed movement, going beyond heirlooms, still respecting conservation and the need for conservation."

Clif Bar Seed Matters initiative.

Out of the literal ashes of Abundant Life, Dillon founded the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) with Navazio, a renowned plant geneticist, agroecologist, author and organic seed production specialist. With a belief that seed is part of our common cultural heritage—a living, natural resource that demands careful management to meet food needs now and into the future—the OSA's mission was to support the growing organic seed movement and advance what it calls "ethical seed solutions" to meet food and farming needs in a changing world.

Under Dillon's leadership the OSA educated thousands of farmers and other agricultural community members, conducted professional organic plant breeding and seed production research, and advocated for national policies strengthening organic seed systems.

But, as Dillon said, "I'm not a manager, I'm a start-up guy." Once the OSA was humming along with great people like Navazio, Micaela Colley, Kiki Hubbard and others in place, he said, "I was like, I’m done. I’m ready for something new."

In the field.

That new, shiny thing came in the unexpected form of a job with a candy bar—or what these days is called an "energy bar"—company, Clif Bar. After leaving OSA, Dillon did some consulting, and the Clif Bar Family Foundation was one of his first clients. He found it intriguing because, though only about 70 percent of the ingredients in Clif Bar products were organic, its founders, Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford, wanted to figure out how to get more organics into the system, which meant scaling up the growing organic industry, starting with seed.

"I would tell them things like, the organic movement needs to stop marketing ourselves as being grandma and grandpa’s farm and going back a hundred years," he said. "We’re not going back. We’re using the best scientific principles and practices for our production system to figure out how to move our production system forward. To do that you have to give the farmers better tools, you have to understand cover cropping better, you have to understand soil management better, there’s all of this investment you need to make."

Rather than taking the tack of much of the organic movement, like making investments in fighting GMOs and GMO labeling, Dillon's experience told him that not enough investment was being made in agricultural research. His mission from that point on was clear. "Let’s start with seed," he said. "Let’s focus on a seed initiative that improves organic seed, and then let’s see where we can go from there."

He began his work at the foundation in 2009 by founding the company's Seed Matters initiative, with a mission to improve the viability and availability of organic seed to provide more nutritious and productive crops. It would do this by conserving crop genetic diversity, promoting farmers’ roles as seed innovators and stewards, and by reinvigorating public seed research and education. It meant working with farmers, educators, researchers, nonprofits, public universities, community gardeners and seed advocates, as well as establishing graduate fellowships for students to enter the field of organic plant breeding.

A chance to move over to the company and effect what he perceives of as systemic change has placed Dillon in a critical role, as Clif Bar's Director of Agricultural Policy and Programs. For Clif Bar, he said, it was a question of looking at their agricultural supply chain, then figuring out how to make investments that will be good for their farmers but also be good for the company.

Again, for Dillon it goes back to his upbringing in the Midwest in the 1970s.

"What I love about [Clif Bar] is, you hear about companies that are triple bottom lines; Clif Bar was this five bottom line," he said. "They have people, planet, community, business and brands, and agriculture they put under community aspiration, and to me that was really cool.

"As a kid growing up in a rural community, I’d seen the farm crisis in Nebraska in the late 70s—farmers' suicides, consolidation. All of that was alive and crushingly apparent in my community. I was watching people lose farms, family members and friends losing farms in the late seventies and early eighties. So, to me, it was the idea that big ag comes in and extracts value out of communities. It’s systemic."

While Dillon openly admits that Clif Bar is far from perfect, he said that they know they have work to do.

"Because the question of any food company should be, how do our decisions either add value to communities, make communities more robust and healthy and resilient, or how do they detract from that?" he said.

Photo of Dillon at Wild Garden Seed by Shawn Linehan.