Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Pound of Cornmeal, A Whole Lot of Work

I'd gone to Ayers Creek Farm to help with some chores, but the first thing I did was to head out behind the house where I knew Anthony had his telescope set up. This time of year it's focused on the top of an old snag about a hundred yard from the house in a grove of firs. Looking through the eyepiece, I could see three fluffy grey humps. One hump shook itself and turned into the sunlight that was just coming up over the hills to the east. Piercing golden eyes lit up, and when I whooped the other two humps turned and I was the one who was being watched.

I tore myself away from the three great horned owlets when I heard Carol starting up the gator to head over to the shed—actually a large new processing barn for the corn, beans and berries that are grown on the farm—to help grind 120 pounds of flint corn needed for the week's deliveries to some of Portland's best restaurants. Carol escorted me to the back room of the shed and introduced me to my companion for the day, a small corn mill (top video and left) that, shaking and rattling, has ground their signature Roy's Calais Flint cornmeal for the past several years.

If you've ever heard the words "artisan" or "slow food" or gone to the farmers' market and wondered how a farmer could charge several dollars for a one-pound bag of organic corn meal, I have your answer. Let's not go into the several years it takes to develop the perfect corn for your climate that grows well, is resistant to local pests and yes, tastes good, too. The year before planting, thousands of that season's harvest are sorted to find just the right kernels to use for seed for the next season's crop. When the next spring arrives, it's time to prepare the fields, plant the kernels and make sure the plants survive to maturity. In late summer the corn is harvested, the stalks are stripped, the cobs are dried for several months and then sorted to find the very best ones to grind into cornmeal.

Those selected cobs are bagged and stored until it's time to grind the corn, which is where I entered the picture. Carol had put the cobs through a hand-cranked cast iron corn sheller that removed the dried kernels, then run them through a cleaner that removed the silks and other debris from the shelling process. The crates of shelled kernels were stacked next to my grinder friend, and it would be my job to turn the machine on, fill the hopper with kernels and watch as they dribbled down through the grinder, each hopper-full filling the bucket at the bottom with around 10 pounds of cornmeal.

After the bucket was filled and I'd set it up for the next batch—it took about 20 minutes or so to run the full hopper through the grinder—I turned on the machine and then headed into the main room with the bucket of cornmeal. Each batch of the ground meal had to be hand-sieved through a mesh-bottomed frame with handles at each end, which meant dumping about three pounds at a time into the sieve and shaking it into a tub until all the meal had filtered out, leaving a pile of larger corn bits and husks from the kernels.

The sieved cornmeal was still slightly warm from the grinding, and the smell of the freshly ground corn was like fresh tortillas or a warm pot of polenta—distilled comfort. After each bucket had been sieved, I scooped the meal into a tub to weigh it out into five-pound portions that I bagged and labeled. Then it was time to run back to the grinder for the next bucket, take it out of the grinder, put in a fresh bucket and refill the hopper. Did I mention that this had to be done for 120 pounds? Right.

By mid-afternoon, having paused for a lunch on the patio of lamby-licious shawarma wraps from Izgara in nearby Forest Grove, the crates were filled with bulging bags of cornmeal ready for delivery. Baptized from head to toe in cornmeal dust, I drove back to town with a new appreciation for what it took to produce those little one-pound bags of cornmeal waiting for me on my next trip to the market.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Ask Before You Buy: Bee-Friendly Plants Might Kill Instead

There's a lot of buzz about the importance of pollinators to our food system and a big push for home gardeners to include more bee-friendly plants. Some of your neighbors, like mine, might be looking to get their yards officially certified as officially bug-friendly habitats. So it's time to start making lists of the plants and seeds we need, then head to the nursery, right?

Well, pause a moment in that list-making, friends, because what you may not be aware of is that some of those lovely plants at the nursery labeled as "bee friendly" might actually be harmful or even toxic to pollinators. Remember last year when a Wilsonville landscaping company sprayed dozens of blooming linden trees, killing more than 50,000 bumblebees? The insecticide they used to spray the trees—apparently without reading the instructions, which strictly forbade using it on trees in bloom and which the company was subsequently fined a bit more than $2,800, about a nickel a bee—is one that is often used on landscaping plants.

Called a neonicotinoid, or "neonic" (pron. NEE-oh-nick), it's a systemic chemical that's absorbed by the plant and dispersed through the plant tissues, including pollen and nectar. Developed to target nerve impulses in insects and other invertebrates, neonicotinoids are deemed "safe" since harm to humans and other mammals is minimal. However, neonicotinoids are toxic to bees and many other beneficial insects and can linger in the soil for months or even years, where they can be picked up by the next season’s plants.

Even when used according to printed instructions, the concentration of neonicotinoids in garden products can be dozens of times greater than on farm crops. This means that bees can be exposed to lethal doses of neonicotinoids in gardens. Even if bees are not killed outright, smaller, nonlethal doses can impact their health, causing bumblebee colonies to grow more slowly and produce fewer queens and impairing honeybees' ability to fly, navigate and forage for food.

Only one nursery in the Portland area, Garden Fever on NE Fremont, has pulled all pesticides containing this group of chemicals from its shelves. At any of the other garden stores it's important to ask staff people if the plant you're buying has been treated with systemic pesticides at the wholesale nursery or grower, or if that grower uses neonicotinoids in spray form or as granules (since they can travel through the air or linger in soil). If the staff doesn't know or isn't sure, you can call the distributor, but your best bet would be to buy organic plants and starts to be sure.

Above all, according to Mace Vaughan, Pollinator Program Director at the Xerces Society, "folks should be looking for alternatives to pesticides, which means using no long-lived neonics and learning how to apply the least harmful methods." He highly recommends consulting Metro's Natural Gardening website. (Download Metro's natural gardening guide.)

If you want to take that a step further and get active in the effort to classify neonicotinoid pesticides as "restricted use" in Oregon—which would mandate that any commercial use (e.g. at a green house) requires a trained applicator—you should contact your state representative. As it stands now, Vaughan says, "if I owned a nursery in this state, my 11-year-old daughter could go out and spray everything with neonics. Common sense dictates that trained applicators should be the only ones do this, which dovetails with the new law (HB4139) passed in the last legislative session requiring that trained applicators learn about bee protection."

For more information on neonicotinoids and their use, download the Xerces Society's brochure, Protecting Bees from Neonicotinoid Insecticides in Your Garden.

Top photo: buff-tailed bumblebee (bombus terrestris) by Alvesgaspar from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Dinner Reboot: Chicken Visits a Moroccan Souk

When the sun has comes out,  the last thing I want to do is be sitting at the computer checking Twitter or Facebook for the umpteenth time. So I head out with the dogs for a walk on a new route, or chuck them in the car and drive to a dog-friendly park or trail I've heard about. It's all about letting a little air into the routine, like taking a quick vacation, if only in my head.

Basking in Moroccan spices.

The same thing can be done with dinner. Tired of that same old meatloaf? Take it to Mexico with some cumin, chiles and lime, or to Greece with fresh oregano and oil-cured olives. I did it the other night with that ultimate boring protein, chicken. But did you ever consider that the bird gets that reputation because it keeps getting cooked the same old way over and over? I say take that chicken on a vacation!

Because I'd been craving some exotic spices lately, the spice market, or souk, in Morocco seemed like the perfect destination for my poultry. With a palette of colors and flavors to choose from—brilliantly yellow turmeric, smoky red paprika, the intoxicating perfume of cumin—and the zing of lemon, this chicken wasn't ever going to be called bland again.

Moroccan-style Chicken with Lemons, Olives and Carrots

2 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground turmeric
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper
2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. olive oil
4 lbs. chicken thighs and legs
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
4 carrots, sliced in 1/2” coins
1 lemon, sliced in half lengthwise, then in 1/4" slices crosswise or 1 roasted lemon sliced as directed
1 c. green olives, pitted
1/2 c. water
1/4 cup currants or golden raisins

Combine all the spices, including salt and pepper, in a 1-gallon zip-lock plastic bag. Place the chicken pieces in the bag with the spices and seal it. Then using your hands, squish the pieces around with the spice mixture until they're thoroughly coated. Let the chicken stand for one hour in the spices.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet on medium high heat. Remove chicken pieces from the bag and place skin side down in the skillet, browning well on both sides. Remove the chicken pieces to a platter, then add the garlic and onions to the skillet and sauté. When the onion begins to turn translucent, add carrot coins and sauté for another 3 minutes.

Remove the onion and carrot mixture to a bowl and add the chicken back to the skillet. Cover the chicken with the onion and carrot mixture. Add the lemon slices, olives, raisins and 1/2 cup water. Bring to a simmer on medium heat, then lower the heat to a low simmer, cover the skillet and cook for an additional 45 minutes until the chicken is cooked through and quite tender.

Serve with rice, couscous or quinoa.

Ayers Creek Owl Update: Three!

Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm is keeping me updated on the Great Horned Owl nest in the top of a snag near their house. This morning the mother had a surprise waiting for him when he came out to take look!

This morning's sun on Day 68 revealed a fuller nest than I expected. There are three owlets. Just the top of the head of third is visible to the right. The older siblings are developing their immature plumage and the barest signs of ear tufts are visible. The surly gang is growing quickly and keeping the parents busy. This is the first time there have been more than two young.

In the hole beneath the owls, a starling has set up house. She darts in and out all day long. A busy tree.

Photos by Anthony Boutard.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Livin' in the Blurbs: Plowing, Cheeses and Changes at Culinate

There are a few annual events that make me extra happy to live here: Jim Dixon's Olive Oil Garage Sale. The apple tasting at Portland Nursery. The farm ramble at Ayers Creek Farm. And the one that totally brings back my horse-loving eight-year-old self, the Yamhill County Farm Fest and Plowing Competition sponsored by the Oregon Draft Horse and Mule Breeders Association. This year the rock-em, sock-em competition, featuring classic draft breeds like Belgians, Percherons, Haflingers, Shires, Suffolk and Clydesdales, plus teams of doughty mules, is coming up this Saturday, April 12, on what's predicted to be a stunningly gorgeous day. The event includes blacksmithing demonstrations, historic farm equipment, quilts from local quilting clubs and other family-friendly activities. So throw the kids in the buggy and trot them out to the country for a day of country fun. (Be sure to say hi when you see my eight-year-old self patting the horses…)

Details: Yamhill County Farm Fest and Plowing Competition. Sat., April 12, 10 am-4 pm; $5 admission, kids 12 and under free. Yamhill Co. Historical Society and Museum, 11275 SW Durham Ln., McMinnville. 503-434-0490.

* * *

Community Supported Cheese is an idea whose time has come. Fortunately, Sasha Davies is all over it with her monthly Cheese Club at Cyril's. Unlike many buying clubs, where you're stuck with whatever that month's featured product is, Sasha has created a club where participants can opt in depending on how they feel about the selected cheese and whether their budget that month will support the purchase of a pound of cheese. How awesome is that? She does it by (get this!) posting the month's featured cheese to Kickstarter, then letting folks commit or not. Plus if it doesn't get funded, then everyone's off the hook! That's my kind of club.

Details: Community Supported Cheese Club at Cyril's. Thurs., April 10, 6:30 pm (pledge must be made before Thurs., April 10 at 6 pm; future monthly meetings and cheeses will be posted); $10 to taste the cheese of the month; price for the pound (or piece) varies monthly. Check the website. Cyril's at Clay Pigeon Winery, 815 SE Oak St. 503-206-7862.

* * *

Some sad news came this last month from my friend Kim Carlson at Culinate. After seven years of publishing a nationally recognized online food magazine, she and her husband James Berry will be closing up shop, or at least that part of it that publishes stories and recipes. I've written stories and contributed recipes to Culinate over the years and found their passionate commitment to the cause of good cooking, great ingredients and sustainable sourcing to be thoughtful and inspiring. The good news, if it can be spun that way, is that they are keeping the website's content available for the foreseeable future. The website was only part of their business, and now they are turning their focus to the partnerships they have with cookbook authors and publishers to create mobile apps from cookbooks. These have included Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything series and the app for the incredibly successful Hello, Cupcake! series, recently awarded the iTunes App Store Editor’s Choice and Best App of the year. Now rumor has it they're about to release a huge new cooking app project that will rock the foundation of the cookbook world. Stay tuned!

Friday, April 04, 2014

In Season NW: Broccolini, Raab, Rabe, Rapini

This week's newsletter from the Beaverton Farmers Market had some valuable information for market shoppers who might be asking, "What are those bundles of greens and why are they all called something different?" Market manager Ginger Rapport gave me permission to reprint the answer here in case you were wondering, too.

Do you get confused when you hear the words “rabe,””raab,” “rapini” or “broccolini” used in recipes? Let us help you sort this out because you will find some of these green vegetables in the market this weekend.

First, a little taxonomy: Cruciferous vegetables are vegetables of the family Brassicacae, known as Brassicas or Crucifers. They include: cauliflower, broccoli, mustard greens, arugula, bok choy, kales and cabbages to name a few. Now, a little clarification.

  • Broccolini is not baby broccoli. It is a cross between regular broccoli and Chinese broccoli with long stems, larger florets, and less leaves. It is less bitter than some of its relatives which is why it is often thought of as baby broccoli.
  • Rapini and broccoli rabe are close cousins and are often used interchangeably. They are in the same subspecies as the turnip, hence they have the characteristically slightly bitter taste of this group. They do not form the large heads that we see in broccoli.
  • The flower buds of brassicas from the turnip family are often referred to as rabe, or raab, derived from raps, which means turnip in Italian. This time of the year, you will find the rabes of many types of brassicas in the market—kale, mustard greens, Brussels sprouts, turnips, bok choy and Chinese cabbage.

While each of these are from a common family there are slight differences in taste between them. With each, you are meant to eat the stems, buds and leaves, making them very easy to prep for cooking. Don’t be alarmed if the buds have begun to show their yellow flowers. Some feel that the flowers are a sweeter version of the parent plant.

All of the aforementioned brassicas are excellent roasted, sautéed or lightly steamed. We don’t recommend boiling because it is easy to overcook the leaves in boiling water. The usual additions of garlic and a pinch of red pepper flakes makes for an easy and delicious preparation. Finish your dish with salt and pepper to taste and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

We also suggest that you try tossing your raabs with a Balsamic vinegar reduction. The reduction’s sweet finish balances the bitter quality of the greens. We like to keep a balsamic reduction in the refrigerator to have on hand as needed. It is delicious drizzled on salads, fresh vegetables, fish and meats.

Basic Balsamic Vinegar Reduction

2 c. balsamic vinegar*

Boil in a small saucepan until reduced by half (one cup). You can continue to boil for a thicker glaze type consistency. You may add a clove of garlic, minced, or fresh herbs such as thyme. Be sure to strain those out before storing.

* Bottles of balsamic vinegar on store shelves labeled "Balsamic Vinegar of Modena" are a commercial grade product made of wine vinegar with the addition of coloring, caramel and sometimes thickeners like guar gum or cornflour. Authentic balsamic vinegar, labeled "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena," is produced from the juice of just-harvested white grapes (typically, Trebbiano grapes) boiled down to approximately 30% of the original volume to create a concentrate or must, which is then fermented in a slow aging process which concentrates the flavors.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Burgers and Beer Build Community in Lostine

Living here in the densely populated land of plenty that is Oregon's Willamette Valley, it's easy to forget that there's another Oregon just a few hours away on the other side of the Cascade Range. It's a much drier place, a high desert populated by sagebrush, pine trees and rolling hills where cattle outnumber people. Other mountain ranges, including the Blue Mountains and the Wallowas, are dotted with deep lakes, and the deer, elk and other wildlife that live there have adapted to the extremes of temperature that can go from well below freezing in winter to above 100 degrees in summer.

The original building that became the Lostine Tavern.

There are no New Seasons or Whole Foods stores stocked with aisles of fresh produce and sustainably harvested West Coast albacore. In fact, many of the small towns in the region are designated by the USDA as "food deserts"—rural towns with limited
 access to fresh foods. That's one reason why Joseph resident and writer Lynne Curry and her business partner, rancher Peter Ferré, have decided to rebuild a landmark tavern in the tiny town of Lostine, 10 miles northwest of Enterprise.

Beginning the renovation.

The Lostine Tavern, built in 1902 from locally quarried Bowlby stone, was originally a pharmacy and doctor's office, then became a tavern in the 1940s until it closed in January, 2013. Curry and Ferré, both active in efforts to revive a strong local food system, hope to build their menu around produce and meats from area farms and ranches. Which includes bringing back community favorites like taco nights and pie socials, as well as cooking classes and a small market and deli that they hope will nurture the beginnings of a rural food economy.

Detail of original stone walls, wood ceiling. Cool!

Curry admits it's a bit of a stretch to build a successful farm-to-table restaurant considering the size of the population in the area, but is encouraged by the enthusiastic response they've received from local residents. And because of a tragic fire in early February that burned the South Fork Grange and Norton Welding—two adjoining historic structures that formed the core of the small downtown—to the ground, the rebuilding of the tavern has become even more critical to the community.

Please consider donating whatever you can to their campaign, which ends on April 14, but also plan to visit after the tavern opens in mid-May…this stunningly beautiful area is going to get even more amazing.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Accidental Grace: Gumbo Z'herbes

At some point contributor Jim Dixon of Real Good Food must have lived a past life in New Orleans, so in love is he with the people, music, culture and food of that city. Here he shares the lore and a recipe about one of his favorite dishes from the Big Easy.

I didn’t realize it was Maundy Thursday when I stopped at Dooky Chase’s for fried chicken. It was one of our first trips to New Orleans, and I was determined to try as many of the city’s iconic foods as I could. I had an extra hour, it was around lunchtime, and I was a few blocks away.

The place was packed. As I squeezed into the bar to order some chicken to go, I saw the specials board inked with the magic words, “gumbo z’herbes.”  It suddenly clicked that Easter was a few days away, but all I really cared about was getting some of this special once-a-year gumbo, made with a garden’s worth of leafy greens. And I got the chicken, too.

Always use an odd number of greens.

I’d read about Leah Chase’s famous green gumbo, and it had inspired me to make a simple gumbo with greens. I’d always thought gumbo z’herbes was a Lenten dish made without meat, but when I tucked into the bowl I’d brought home I found chunks of sausage. Miss Leah’s version calls for several pounds of meat, and I learned it’s eaten on the Thursday before Good Friday to prepare the faithful for a day without meat. A committed heathen, I like it any day of the week during gumbo season.

Make a dark roux.

While the early Spring sunshine heralds the approaching end of gumbo season, we’ve still got months of cool, damp weather ahead, perfect for a bowl of something hot and spicy. While my variation makes less than the original from Dooky Chase’s, it’ll still feed a small crowd, so invite some friends and have a party.

Gumbo Z’herbes

My own gumbo influences are Cajun, so I start with a dark roux. Combine about a half cup each of extra virgin olive oil and whole wheat flour in a cast iron skillet. Cook in a 350° oven for about 90 minutes or until it’s the color of dark chocolate. You can do this ahead, it keeps in the refrigerator indefinitely (or make twice as much and save half for the next batch).

While the roux’s cooking, chop an onion, some celery and bell pepper (about half as much of each as you have onion) and cook them in extra virgin olive oil in a large Dutch oven. Toss in a chopped jalapeno if you like things spicy. In a separate skillet, brown about 2 lbs. of cubed pork shoulder and at least one smoked sausage or andouille (I like the ones at Laurelhurst Market).

Add the meat (and scrape all the browned bits out of the skillet, deglazing with a little water if necessary) and the roux to the vegetables. If you’ve got any homemade vegetable stock or nettle broth, add at least 2 quarts, using water to make up the difference (or all water if you don’t have any). Bring gently to a boil.

Tradition calls for an odd number of greens, a nod to Catholic symbolism. A letter-writer to the Times-Picayune explained, "This is a traditional Holy Thursday meal for Creole families in New Orleans. The Nine Greens represent the Nine Churches visited on Good Friday in remembrance of Jesus' walk to be crucified." I used green cabbage, Swiss chard, beet greens, rapini, collards, cavolo nero and kale, but nettles, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, turnip greens, escarole, dandelion, carrot tops and bok choy all serve well. But use a mix of 7, 9, 11 or 13.

While most recipes call for a bunch of each, which makes an enormous pot of gumbo, use about a cup or so of each green for this more modest quantity. Chop your chosen greens coarsely to give you about a cup of each, and add them to the pot. Stir well and taste, adding salt if necessary. Cover and simmer for at least 2 hours. I usually don’t use it, but a few shakes of filé (pron. FEE-lay), ground sassafras leaves, are traditionally added just before serving.

Make some Kokuho Rose brown rice. Put about a cup of rice in a wide, shallow bowl and ladle the gumbo over it. Sprinkle with sliced green onion and pass the Crystal hot sauce.

Friday, March 28, 2014

No-Boil Lasagne Noodles: Why, Exactly?

Sometimes I start jonesing for a particular food or flavor. Awhile ago it was curry, then beef braised in a chile rojo, both satisfied with a couple of simple dinners whipped out of ingredients in the pantry. I was wandering through our neighborhood Trader Joe's recently, thinking of pulling together a lasagne—just the mention of it makes me salivate—so when I saw the package of lasagne noodles on the shelf I threw them into my cart without a glance.

Letting the noodles "rest" for 30 min. Pffft!

Pulling them out of the bag when I got home, I noticed they were labeled "no boil." What? But having promised the family lasagne for dinner and kind of curious to see what the heck these might be, I decided to use them and see just how "oven ready" they really were.

With all my ingredients ready to go, I looked at the instructions. Basically it said to preheat the oven, layering the noodles with sauce and cheese in the pan as usual. But then the next line stopped me. After getting it all ready, it said to let it sit for 30 minutes, presumably to allow the noodles to absorb some of the moisture from the sauce and soften up a bit.

After baking? Just okay, and no time-saver.

Are you kidding me? I could have brought a pot of water to boil and parboiled my noodles—I don't cook lasagne noodles fully, just let them get a little bendy so they can soak up some lovely tomato flavor—in less time than that! And this is considered "convenience food"? Oh, please.

In any case, I did as instructed anyway, and it turned out okay. Not great or mind-blowing, mind you, but the noodles were al dente (a little more than I like) and tasted pretty good. I can only say they won't be making another appearance on our table, unless I need an excuse for a major eye-roll.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Portland Dining Month Wrapping Up

Dang! With just five nights left, it looks like I'm not going to be making it through my picks of restaurants to hit during Portland's annual Dining Month—in fact, I've only made it to two on the whole darn list so far.

But with an opportunity to sample three courses of some of PDX's finest grub—there are 90 places to choose from—for just $29, it almost makes it into the "I don't feel like cooking tonight" category, which, if I had my druthers, would be every other night around our house. To me, it's a chance to try out places that fit the "special occasion" description, a trial run for a later date night, anniversary or place to take out of town friends.

My first hit was Kelly Myer's Xico, which we'd visited earlier but wanted to return to, if only because I was seduced by the salmon in mole verde (top photo) on offer. Which points up the fact that though these menus are designed around the featured price, the offerings are obviously barely clearing break-even status. Added to that was the opportunity to get one of the restaurant's signature margaritas, which totally hit the spot.

Beverages aren't included in the price, of course, which no doubt gives the restaurants a chance to make up some of the revenue, but I've never felt pressured by up-selling on the part of staff or given the nose-in-the-air treatment because I'm ordering the "cheap" option. Remember that March can be a pretty slow time of the year for dining out, so most restaurateurs and wait staff are happy to see so many smiling faces at their tables.

The second trip was to Paley's Place on Northwest 21st, the anchor of Vitaly and Kimberly Paley's now three-restaurant empire (he also owns downtown's Imperial and Penny Diner). Dave and I were seated at a cozy table in the dining room behind the bar (above right) and were brought amuse bouches of shot glasses of cucumber gazpacho with our drink order. Again, there was no sniffing on display when I ordered the Dining Month menu, and no move was made to grab back the amuse as not included—same with the complimentary basket of bread and butter.

Portions at both places were generous, as well, with Paley's main course of grilled albacore (left) perfectly seared on a bed of frikeh salad with a drizzle of caper aioli. One caveat to be noted is that the offerings are set in stone, so check the menus listed on the website to make sure it will accomodate any of your party's dietary restrictions. For instance, while I can (and do) eat almost everything, Dave's lactose issue makes it virtually impossible to enjoy all three courses, so he orders from the regular menu. (Though you can always check with the restaurant when you call to make your reservation.)

So if you can't make it one of the next five nights, put it on your calendar for next year. I have a feeling this event is gonna be here to stay.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Smelt Are Running! The Smelt Are Running!

"This evening we were visited by Comowooll the Clatsop Chief and 12 men women & children of his nation…The chief and his party had brought for sail a Sea Otter skin some hats, stergeon and a [s]pecies of small fish which now begin to run, and are taken in great quantities in the Columbia R. about 40 miles above us [Cowlitz River] by means of skiming or scooping nets…I find them best when cooked in Indian stile, which is by roasting a number of them together on a wooden spit without any previous preperation whatever. they are so fat they require no additional sauce, and I think them superior to any fish I ever tasted…" - Meriwether Lewis, Feb. 24, 1806

They're known as smelt to most of us, the species named Eulachon or, in Latin, Thaleichthys pacificus, these small six to nine-inch fish that in the early spring in the Northwest swim from the ocean up larger rivers like the Columbia to shallower tributaries such as the Sandy River. I've heard stories of the smelt runs most of my life, their numbers so large at times that they could choke a smaller river, drawing hordes to the banks with dipping nets when the word went out that the smelt were running.

Native Americans in British Columbia with smelt.

From 1938 to 1992 the average catch in the Columbia during the season was 2 million pounds, but from 1993 to 2006 the number declined precipitously to an average of 43,000 pounds. Though the exact causes of the depletion are unknown, it's theorized that it's due to habitat loss from dams, pollution and/or climate change. In 2010 the southern eulachon was listed under the Endangered Species Act and harvests were strictly regulated or, in recent years, completely curtailed.

This year, for the first time in several years, the smelt season was opened to dip netting, generating much excitement among locals, some whose families had a long history with the annual smelt runs. Ethan and Ashley Bisagna, owners of Feastworks, were among those who jumped at the chance, packing up their three kids, ages 11, 4 and 18 months, along with Ashley's brother, Austin, to head down to the banks of the Sandy.

Ethan demonstrating how it's done.

The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife had designated just two six-hour windows, on March 15 and 22nd from 6 am to noon, and the family arrived early to find the banks already lined with hopeful dippers. (Click on the photo at right to see the crowds on the opposite bank.)

“There were hundreds of people out excited about the smelt run. It looked just like the old dip netting pictures from the 50s. It was pretty cool to be a part of it,” said Ashley. “Austin can remember our grandfather going out to dip net for the smelt every year.”

A little salt and fire is all it takes.

With a limit of 10 pounds per adult, Ashley said that they had their limit of 30 pounds within two hours. Shortly after arriving home, they'd thrown their first batch on the fire for lunch and the rest were smoked and canned for their personal larder.

“These are an oily little fish with a really clean, delicate flavor…they’re delicious,” said Ethan, adding that the family is already strategizing about next year's season.

Historical photo from Wikimedia. Other photos courtesy Ashley Bisagna.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ayers Creek Owl Update: Release!

Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm is keeping me updated on the Great Horned Owl nest in the top of a snag near their house. And yes, that little lump of grey just below her to the left are the two owlets!

After 51 days on the nest, the mother took a moment to enjoy the morning's sunshine. The first time we have seen her off the nest since that afternoon on the first of February when she sat down and laid her first egg.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Norman Chronicles: Neck and Neck

They're unofficially called "butcher's cuts," those not-so-frequently-seen-in-meat-cases pieces of lamb, beef or pork. Because they aren't big, gorgeous hunks of flesh, they were harder to sell and ended up going home with the butchers to feed their families, knowing as they did that these "off cuts" were often more flavorful than their more well-known compadres. Flank steak and hanger steak used to belong to that category until the beef association started promoting them, and now they'll often cost as much as steaks.

A cut that hasn't yet been popularized and, with any luck, will remain in the cheap-but-delicious category is lamb neck. This two-or-so-pound piece of meat is perfect for braising low and slow until the flesh is melting off the bone, and has enough heft flavor-wise to stand up to the richly flavorful Provençal-style sauce below. You can get one by ordering it from your favorite butcher or market that carries lamb, though it might mean the butcher's family will have to figure out something else for dinner.

Braised Lamb Neck Provençal

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lamb neck, about 2 lbs.
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, smashed
3 c. roasted tomatoes, chopped
1 c. dry white wine, such as sauvignon blanc
Zest of 1 lemon
1/8 tsp. saffron
1 tsp. salt
2 bay leaves
1/2 c. pitted oil-cured black olives or green olives, sliced*
2 lemons, cut in wedges

Preheat oven to 325°.

Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Brown neck on all sides. While lamb browns, put saffron and salt in mortar and pestle and grind until saffron is broken down. Remove browned neck to platter. Add onion and garlic to pan and sauté till translucent, scraping up browned bits of lamb. Add tomatoes, wine, lemon zest, saffron-salt mixture and bay leaves to pan and stir, then return lamb neck to pan. Cover pan with parchment paper and lid and braise in the oven for 2 1/2 hrs., turning the neck every 45 min. or so.

Add chopped olives and lemons to pan and continue cooking another 45 min. until meat is falling off the bone. Serve over polenta.

* I used Spanish anchovy-stuffed olives, which added that touch of umami from the anchovies. Yum!

Read the other posts in The Norman Chronicles: Getting to Shepherd's Pie, Braising Saddles and Shanks and Hearts.

Friday, March 21, 2014

These Eggs are Ready for Easter!

My friend Kim has a flock of around 40 pastured hens on her property in Happy Valley, a diverse collection of heritage breeds like Ameraucanas, Wyandottes, Buff Orpingtons, among others. The variety and diversity shows in the magnificent color of the eggs she collects each morning, don't you think?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

What is Fair Food?

There are all kinds of terms used in what is called the "food movement" in this country, and I find it confusing. Fair food. Slow food. Food justice. Food equity. I mean, it's probably possible to parse all this to make some sense of it, but what does it mean, really?

The other day I was invited to attend a "viewing party" organized by a local PR firm, Maxwell PR, to watch streaming video of a day-long conference put on by the organization that does TED Talks. (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design.) Originating in New York City, it was to be a series of 10-minute presentations called TedXManhattan: Changing the Way We Eat.

One in particular, by Alison Cayne, owner of Haven’s Kitchen, a recreational cooking school, cafe and event space in Manhattan, struck me. She's also on the boards of Just Food, Edible Schoolyard NYC and FERN (Food and Environmental Reporting Network). In other words, a pretty knowledgeable source on what's happening regarding food issues.

She spoke on The Food Movement in a Historical Context, explaining how social movements work through the lens of women's suffrage—40-plus years from the first official meeting of the suffragettes to the passage of the 19th Amendment—and civil rights, which took more than 100 years from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Civil Rights Act. Basically she said that despite the seeming slow pace of change, the food movement as such is right on track with other social movements, at a stage where groups are beginning to work together and awareness is building among the public as to the importance of a safe, sustainable food supply.

Then, and mind you all this was within her 10-minute time frame, it got really interesting. She defined what a fair food system was. In five simple bullet points. Wow! So here you go, fair food in a nutshell:
  1. Every school child can eat a nutritious lunch every day
  2. Fresh vegetables are available at every corner store in even the poorest neighborhoods at an affordable price
  3. Those who have very little to spend on food aren’t forced into a diet that makes them sick
  4. Farmers don’t have to be worried about paying for their kids’ education because their work is valued
  5. People know what they’re buying and have real choice because the food is labeled.
Simple, right? Understandable and non-jargon-laden. So now you know when someone starts talking about fair food, this is what they mean. I get it now!

Photo by Ben Shumin from Wikimedia Commons.

Garden 2014: Shoots and Buds

While most of our garden still slumbers under a tangle of fallen sunflower stalks and the weeds and grass that are beginning to take it over, I've been watching to see what's survived the winter. Most exciting are the little green shoots of the tarragon hedge (top photo) emerging from around the old stalks of last year's crop, promising another bumper crop of one of my favorite herbs.

Red veined sorrel.

Along with the tarragon are new sprouts of parsley popping up, as well as thyme and savory that apparently made it through the freezing temperatures. The red-veined sorrel has also come back and looks to be thriving, so it will start adding its bright color to some salads in the near future. It was good to see that the blueberries we planted last fall are budding, too, but I'm not expecting much of a crop until next year when the plants get better established. And I do have high hopes for the rhubarb, which should, at three years old, be ready to produce enough for a couple of crisps and maybe even a pie.

Come on, rhubarb!

While there's another month yet before I can start digging in earnest, I have time to think about what to plant along the cyclone fence behind the blueberries, both to cover up the unsightly metal fencing as well as screen off our backyard dining area from passersby. And then the decision about tomatoes, which were heartbreakingly unproductive last year—I'm thinking optimism will win the day and we will try growing them again.

Ayers Creek: Owl Update

Whenever I visit Anthony and Carol at Ayers Creek Farm this time of year, I can count on finding the tripod and telescope set up near the house, focused on the top of a big snag in the stand of firs about 200 feet away. The top of that broken snag has, for the last several years, been home to a great horned owl's nest and, while I didn't see the owlets on my recent visit, Anthony assures me they've hatched by now.

The mother owl laid her eggs about a month ago just as the snow and freezing rain storms hit the area, and Anthony took a picture of her sitting on her nest, her head covered in snow (left). Once the eggs are laid, she doesn't leave the nest for at least 40 days, made possible because her mate keeps her (and the babies when they hatch) fed until they develop enough down to keep themselves warm.

Hopefully the tiny fuzzy heads of the owlets will poke out when Anthony's got his camera hooked up to the telescope and we'll get a good look at them. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Simply Delicious: French Onion Soup

The lunches of my youth, growing up as I did in a small town in Central Oregon, where the annual summer festival celebrated the potato and crowned a potato queen, were a typical smorgasbörd of the times: bologna sandwich on white bread alternated with tuna fish, with cottage cheese and potato chips on the side.

Soups, which occasionally made an appearance at lunch or dinner, were from the good folks at Campbell's, usually chicken vegetable or Scotch broth (my mother's favorite). Dave wooed me with his doctored canned tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I didn't learn to make a pot of soup until college, when I ran a coffeehouse in the basement of the university's Koinonia center. Mind you, I didn't cook the soups, but had a crew of volunteers I'd wrangled from friends and staff who would make the day's offering in a five-gallon pot.

The soups—and the price, which was just a couple of bucks for a big bowl of soup and a slice of "peasant" bread—attracted a large, regular following, running the gamut from Jane's potato-lentil to Ed's split pea to Mike's startlingly good beer cheese. Robert's French onion was always a huge hit with its rich, beefy stock and chunk of cheese-topped bread. I had a file of all of their recipes, since on occasion I had to pinch hit as chef du jour when one of my cooks couldn't make it in due to colds, flu or a raging hangover (it was college, after all).

I still make my favorites now and then, and have added a killer black bean soup, curried squash and a few chowders to the mix. My friend Kathryn recently reminded me of my soupy beginnings when she mentioned a particularly amazing yet simple French onion soup she'd made recently from a recipe by Jacques Pepin. Since we've no doubt got a few days left of rain, I thought it might be appropriate to share it.

French Onion Soup
Adapted from Jacques Pepin

1 lb. onions, quartered lengthwise and sliced thinly crosswise
2 Tbsp. butter or margarine
8 c. chicken stock
3-4 cloves garlic, minced fine
3 sprigs fresh thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
3/4 lb. Emmenthaler, Gruyère or Jarlsberg cheese, grated
Baguette, sliced crosswise into 1/2" thick slices, toasted

Preheat the oven to 425°. Place 6 small oven-proof crocks (1 1/2 c. capacity) on a cookie sheet. Place 2-3 slices baguette in each crock. Sprinkle 1 or 2 Tbsp. cheese on top of bread.

Melt butter or margarine in Dutch oven or soup pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and sauté till golden brown, stirring frequently so they don't burn, about 15 min. Add chicken stock, garlic and thyme and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 min. Remove any twigs of thyme and add salt and pepper to taste.

Fill the crocks to the brim with the soup. Sprinkle each crock with 1/2 c. cheese, pressing the cheese onto the rim so that it will form a crust. Put the cookie sheet in the oven and bake 30 min. until the cheese is golden, puffed and crusty.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Kids Being Kids: A Parade of Baby Goats

With temperatures this week hitting 60 degrees and spring most definitely in the air, I thought a visit to my friend Kim's little farm was in order, especially when I heard her dams (that's the official name for mama goats) had given birth to a bunch of kids.

They're Nigerian dwarfs, and the kids range in age from just under a month to a few days old. They're about the size of my small-ish cat—that bench in the video is about 10 inches high—and still a bit skittish around strangers. Hopefully I'll be able to visit enough that they'll get over that.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

A Vacation from the Rain

I was between the third and fourth grades in Redmond, Oregon, the summer the local library had a reading contest. All that was required was to record the number of books checked out of the library and read in a defined period of a few weeks. It seemed reasonable to enter, since I spent most of my time curled up with a book anyway, the other half divided between riding my bike and drawing horses from a book of breeds I'd checked out of that same library.

These decades later I can't remember how many I read for the contest, but I do remember I got a book as the prize and the satisfaction of winning my age group. But, as I said, I would have read those books anyway, if perhaps with a bit less diligence. (I was fiercely competitive even then.)

Books have always been a gateway into different worlds for me, not so much an escape as a dive into a different time or place, the good ones populated by people I wanted to get to know. Even now, if I'm reading and Dave says something to me, I only hear a garbled burble of sounds and have to look up and apologize: "I'm sorry, what did you say?"

So needless to say, when my friend Jeffrey Hannan, a writer and author, sent a message saying he was experimenting with a serialized online novel set in Hawai'i, I was all in. Not only do I love his writing, but during the rainy, cold winter months in PDX there's nothing better than taking a vacation in a tropical paradise, if only for a few minutes.

The fact that, though he lives in San Francisco, he spends several weeks a year near Puna, on the big island of Hawai'i, which is where the story is set, is only the icing on the cake. With a knowledge of the local landscape and culture, he tells the story of Pru, who'd arrived in Puna from Rhode Island a decade before on a trip with a boyfriend whom she abandoned at the same time as she found her true place in the small town.

You can escape from the rain and read his story, The Punatics, and get on the list for the new chapters as they're released every week or so. I can't wait, not just to find out what Pru and her friends in Puna are up to, but to feel the warm ocean breeze and hear the hissing of the steam vents from the volcano, if only for moments at a time.

Photos courtesy Jeffrey Hannan from The Punatics.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Brassicas, the Book

When I was growing up the closest thing to a leafy green vegetable on my dinner plate was iceberg lettuce drowned with our family recipe for dressing, consisting of mayonnaise—Best Foods, of course—and ketchup, plus a sprinkling of garlic salt and dried basil. Any other vegetables that appeared were either canned or frozen, mostly peas, corn and beans.

When I first heard the word "brassicas"uttered, I had no idea what it meant. But the fact that it was spoken by Frank Morton, the jazz trumpeter of open-pollinated, organic seed-growers, meant that it was important. And that I should immediately find out what they were. Turns out they're a huge family of all kinds of leafy greens like kale, chard and mustards, along with familiar vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts.

Turned out I was exploring this family, Brassicaceae, at the same time that many chefs were starting to feature braised greens and salads made from kale, chard and mustards on their menus. Bunches of the immature buds of these cruciferous vegetables, often called raab or rabe, were starting to appear on farmers' market stands and stores' vegetables bins. Sweet with a touch of bitterness and incredibly versatile, they could go from a side dish to an entrée and were often best when simply sautéed or lightly dressed with oil and lemon.

So it was seriously exciting—and I understand if you think I may need to get out more—when my friend and fellow food writer Laura Russell announced she was writing a definitive guide to my new favorite genus. The result of years of exhaustive research and testing, Brassicas: Cooking the World's Healthiest Vegetables is a cookbook with more than 80 recipes, but it also delves into the history of this group of vegetables and their amazing health benefits, from vitamins and minerals to phytochemicals and glucosinolates. Plus you'll learn about how they act as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and liver detoxifiers, among other health benefits. Available now for pre-order (it comes out April 8), I'm definitely adding this gorgeous book to my library.