Monday, September 26, 2011

Farm Bulletin: 80 Mad Ave.

I love it when contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm gets on a tear (no pun intended considering the subject material).

New York's Fashion Week is finishing up, giving us all a glimpse of the autumn collections, notable for their dour mood and studied awkwardness. Fashion is in a dreary rut. Now the well-attired will have to scramble down to the stores on Madison Avenue for bags to match the new collections' mood. Our autumn collection will soon be on display as well, and, like the well-attired, last week we made our annual shopping trip to buy bags on Madison Avenue. Our bags will bear the fine labels of Borlotto, Black Turtle, Zolfino, Jet Barley and Amish Butter. Our collection's mood is cautiously optimistic; things look good in the field this autumn.

Our destination was the McDowell Bag Company, 80 SE Madison Avenue, directly underneath the Hawthorne Bridge ramp. McDowell Bag started business as one of many companies operating in the bag cleaning and repair business. Salvagers retrieved cloth and burlap bags from the alleys behind stores, restaurants and other businesses and received a nickel each from the bag company. McDowell Bag had two turbine blowers that it used to clean the bags. The good ones were graded and bundled to sell, and damaged bags went to the seamstresses who patched any holes. McDowell had twenty zigzag sowing machines operating. Cleaned and repaired, the bag was sold for 20¢ or so. The trade in used bags was international in scope.

Although cotton and hemp were used for bags, by far the most common material was burlap, or Hessian cloth, woven from jute. The burlap industry goes back to the mid 19th century when the British learned to spin and weave the long stem (bast) fibers of various species of the tropical plant Chonchorus. Prior to that, barrels (dry cooperage) were the standard shipping container for flour, onions, grains, pulses and other bulk dry goods. Endemic to India, Chonchorus was used as a minor vegetable, not as a fiber source. The Indians have an ancient tradition of spinning and weaving going back millennia. The entombed Pharaohs of Egypt are wrapped in fine muslin imported from India. However, the fabric industry of India was village-based, and it made no economic sense to produce such a low quality coarse fabric until the mechanization of fabric production from the field to the loom. For a little over a century, the burlap bag reigned as the standard reusable and repairable shipping container. The density and tightness of the weave varied by the commodity the bag would carry.

As fruit growers we must note, on the subject of fiber, that all fruits are an excellent source of dietary fiber. Too often, however, we forget that the fiber of certain fruits also provides raiment, and not just the bananas of Carmen Miranda or the grapes of Bacchus. The fibers from the fruits of several Gossypium species are spun and woven to make cotton. The plant, along with its cultivation and use as a fiber, has two centers of origin that developed about the same time roughly 5,000 years ago: the Indus Valley of the Pakistan and Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Coconut is another fruit which produces a fiber, a coarse material resistant to rot called coir. Before we had those nasty plastic peanuts, the fruits of the kapok tree yielded a light, buoyant fiber used for packing material, as well as life jackets.

In the second half of the 20th century, paper and plastics started to supplant the burlap and other plant fiber bags, and today the primary commodity still shipped in burlap is coffee. In most cases, those heavy 50-kg bags are slashed open at the coffee roaster and cannot be reused. In  the mid 1950s, the Peyton bag company closed and the owners went on to own and manage the Crater Lake Lodge. A daughter and a son currently own and manage the Sylvia Beach Hotel. The Calbag company stayed in the salvage business, and now operates as Calbag Metals, another one of our destinations when we accumulate a pile of broken and bent aluminum pipe. McDowell still sells used bags, but the repair and cleaning part of its business disappeared, and new bags were added to the mix. The woven plastic sacks we bought last week cannot be easily repaired because, unlike plant fibers which are rough and stick to one another, the individual strands of plastic are smooth and quickly unravel when broken.  

Last year on our trip to 80 SE Madison, we noticed fewer men in shop coats and steel toe boots, fewer delivery trucks and forklifts. In their place were young people of the thumb tribe anxiously staring into the tiny screens of "smart" phones, and scooters, Scions and Subarus occupied the parking spaces. Now on a month-to-month lease, this bit of Portland history, and a reminder of the city's origin as a gritty agricultural port, will depart at some point in the future, opening a bit more thumbster habitat.

All photos by Anthony Boutard.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

My Awesome Summer: Okanagan Bound

The second trip this month is a road trip in Chili up to Canada's Okanagan to check out the region and the wines of eastern BC for future features.

Yesterday Dave and I explored new territory (for us) along the upper Columbia River, crossing it three…yes three…times on our way up to the tiny village of Twisp, Washington, where we discovered an insanely great B and B (the Methow Valley Inn) and had one of the best Italian dinners I can remember (at Tappi's).

Again, a full post will be forthcoming…a reason to look forward to some downtime this fall!

My Awesome Summer: Gourmet Kayaking

Just so you don't think I've given up blogging for tweeting, I'm posting some shots of the reasons I haven't posted much lately.

First, September has turned into out-of-town month, starting with a gourmet kayaking trip to Vancouver Island courtesy of Edible Canada and NW Palate magazine. Major fun even though it's for "work." I mean, being out on the water and staying at a lovely B&B with terrific food and fun folks? How does it get better than that?

Trust me, you'll be hearing the blow-by-blow (or stroke-by-stroke) soon enough. Though you can follow me on Twitter and get more regular pictorial updates.)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Farm Bulletin: The Soul of an Old Machine

In addition to human hands and a strong back, a successful farm requires dependable tools to wrest a harvest from the soil. Contributor Anthony Boutard elucidates his fondness for one particular piece of equipment at Ayers Creek Farm.

Asked to list a farm's equipment, a tractor and its implements, a pickup truck, and perhaps a hay baler or combine might spring to mind. These machines all have their moment on a farm. It is our iron stevedore, however, that is the farm's machine for all seasons. It is called into duty for unloading fertilizer, moving and servicing equipment, managing trays of drying frikeh and corn, and a myriad of other small tasks. Initially, the appeal of the forklift was economic. At the time, a one-ton tote of fertilizer or seed cost $100 less than 40 50-pound bags. Add in the labor, an hour here and an hour there, and the fact that none of that cost and effort yielded a better flavored tomato or bean. In fact, at busy moments, the time sink of moving stuff could work against the quality as well as yield.

The manufacturer's plate.

We visited a used forklift dealer on North Columbia Boulevard and described what we did and our general needs. The salesman, Steve, pointed out an old, garish yellow forklift, very obviously hand painted with a brush. The manufacturer's plate was in Japanese, and the only English was the manufacturer's name: Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, LTD. The Toyota company started out making looms for weaving silk and later generations of the Toyoda family branched out into autos and industrial machinery. Apparently, changing the D to a T was a purely aesthetic decision.

As we hemmed and hawed, Steve told us a story that we have heard several times since in various renditions. When Toyota was ready to celebrate 25 years in the US, they looked for the first forklift they imported. Didn't take long because the farmer who bought the machine still used it daily. They offered to give him a brand new forklift in exchange. He politely declined, explaining that it was a reliable machine and he didn't need a new one. Ultimately, they got the old forklift to display in their US headquarters, and some versions say it cost the company a bit of brass in addition to the new machine. Between the story of the satisfied farmer and the delicate Japanese characters on the manufacturer's plate, albeit inscrutable, we were hooked. There was also the "homely dog at the kennel" factor.

The rebuilt long block.

Although the machine lacked any of the features we deemed important before buying it, it has proved as perfect as Steve predicted. This spring, however, the old dear's clutch started to chatter, and the oil pressure light flickered at a fairly high engine speed. In rural Oregon, the usual remedy is to use an old machine's last gasp to park it in a blackberry patch among the oaks, and use it for parts and target practice. We really don't have enough time or the inclination to shoot at old machines, so we called Ted King at Portland Engine Rebuilders. He estimated $2,400 for rebuilding the engine. Between the engine, the clutch and the miscellany of things best replaced when the engine is out, the cost would come to about $4,000. A similar used machine costs about $8,000, and ours would be in much better shape for the attention. After unloading our spring fertilizer order, the engine was removed, stripped down and delivered to Ted as a "long block."

The project underscored the fact that the vital connections between a small market farm and a city go beyond just selling fruits and vegetables. Portland Engine Rebuilders is on Hawthorne just before it becomes a two-way street, and we pass it several times a week making deliveries. A short distance away on Market Street is McGuire Bearing, a regular destination because bearings take a beating in the dusty conditions of a farm. The clutch was rebuilt and the flywheel and pressure plate were machined at Ott's Friction Supply on North Columbia, near where our drivelines for various implements are rebuilt. The carburetor was restored at RH Carburetor in Parkrose, and the distributor at Philbin in the Rose District at 28 North Russell. Another stop was City Radiator on Northwest Everett. Good planning goes beyond merely preserving agricultural land, it is also important to maintain a vital industrial zone to have a functioning city.

The assembled engine.

Unlike the first Toyota forklift imported to the US, the history of ours is mysterious. About the same age, it was manufactured in the late 1960s. The model number ends in an H, which indicates the machine was not built to US specifications. Instead, it entered the US much later as a gray market machine, perhaps after working its heart out in an Asian port. According to the rebuilders, the engine suffered a hard life, one of the bearings had spun because of a lack of oil at some point, and it was filthy inside. Nonetheless, the old dear labored on for us in classic Toyota fashion. As we cleaned and polished the various parts, the beautiful craftsmanship of those early Toyotas was revealed. The castings are carefully finished with wonderful and unnecessary embellishments.  Rich, the carburetor rebuilder, told us the accelerator pump was made of leather instead of neoprene and would last for many more decades.

There is a simple elegance to this industrial machine. The cage that supports the engine and protects the operator is welded into a single piece; it is not merely a bunch of modules bolted together like the modern forklifts. The hand of the designer is apparent in the old forklift, rather than simply assembled by an engineer. Looking at the lines, you can sense the pencil lead gliding across the designer's sheet of paper, trying to please the human eye. The little bit of extra steel and time bestows a stylishness and an amiability on a piece of working iron.

Just days before the frenetic beginning of Chester season, the engine was reassembled and hoisted back into the cage. Started up again, first try. A relief, as we were unable to track down the correct engine manual, so we were winging it. The forklift's absence during the frikeh preparation reminded us how much we rely on the old machine.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Speaking of the Harvest…

Is it any wonder that late summer is one of our very favorite times of the year? This is the haul I just made from our garden, and it doesn't even include the carrots, collards and lacinato that is waiting for me to get back out there, or the tomatoes I took to the neighbors. Fabulous eatin' awaits!

Summer Salad Smackdown: Celebrate the Sun!

It's the peak of the harvest at farms and markets in Oregon, and it's all the sweeter for the waiting. Contributor Jim Dixon of RealGoodFood gives us one way to make the best of it.

As a lifelong resident of western Oregon, I can truly say that this summer sucked when it came to weather. The last few days acquitted the year a bit, but they really couldn’t make up for the cold and wet of spring, July and almost all of August (June is always rainy, so I’m willing to let that month go).

Whatever you might believe about global climate, what’s making our seasonal lives, if not really miserable, at least less pleasant than we’d like, is La Niña. I’m not going to even try to explain it—just go here. Very helpful charts and data, but the bottom line is that it’s coming back next year. And that’s your good news for the week.

On a brighter note, the hot weather makes corn taste great. I got some amazing corn from Sauvie Island at New Seasons, and I made this.

Pan-Roasted Corn and Tomato Salad

Cut the kernels from a few ears of corn. It's messy no matter how you do it; I like to shuck the ears, break them in half, and put the relatively flat broken end on the cutting board, then slice the kernels off with sharp knife. Cook them in extra virgin olive oil over medium high until they brown just a bit, maybe 5-8 minutes.

Slice a sweet onion thinly (or a shallot, regular onion, or another allium); mix with a healthy splash of good vinegar (one of the Katz late harvest vinegars, with their slightly sweet flavor, work really well) and let sit for a few minutes.

Slice a bunch of cherry tomatoes in half (or cut some full-sized ones into small pieces). Pick the leaves from a few stems of fresh oregano (other herbs may be substituted). Soak a couple of tablespoons of salt-packed capers, chop coarsely and combine with everything else. Drizzle with good oil, sprinkle with flor de sal, eat at room temperature.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Thinking of Eating: The Day Finally Comes

I hadn't slept well the night before the slaughter, waking up several times thinking about what was going to happen later that day. It was odd because I'd witnessed a slaughter at Clare Carver's Big Table Farm before and, while it had been both moving and fascinating, I certainly hadn't lost sleep over it.

The turmoil reminded me of the time several years ago when I had scheduled our vet to come to the house and put our beloved old Husky, Nikki, to sleep. The night before he was to come, my mind roiled with conflicting thoughts. "Maybe today's not the right day. Maybe the vet won't be able to make it. Maybe…" But of course the morning came and he did as we had asked, giving our old girl a peaceful sendoff.

Around three o'clock I picked up my friend Linda, who was coming to watch the slaughtering process, and we drove out to the farm. It was a beautiful warm day, and Roger and Don were hanging out in the shade of their pig house. Richard arrived in his truck and pulled on his big orange rubber overalls and mud boots, clipped the white chain carrying his knives around his waist and picked up his small black rifle. As Richard walked up to the pigs, Clare was feeding them raw eggs, one of their favorite treats, just as we'd done the day before.

I'd hoped that Roger would be the first, since I was worried that he might be upset if he noticed Don getting shot, but I couldn't tell which pig Richard was closest to. If I could have yelled, "Stop!" I would have, but Richard put the point of his gun to the back of the pig's head. There was a popping sound as the gun went off, and the pig flopped over. Richard then straddled him, cut one of the arteries in the neck and blood started spilling out onto the ground (above left). There were some residual muscle spasms as the pig's heart pumped the blood out, but it quieted and I was able to go over and confirm that, yes, it was Roger. I couldn't help reaching over and scratching him behind his ear.

By then Richard had finished with Don and was getting ready to drag the bodies up the hill to the shed where he'd dress the pigs. It's a frankly fascinating process, and Richard is a master at field dressing, the skinning, gutting and halving of whole animals. At this point it was hard to identify the carcass as being Roger, the pig I knew, which made it easier to watch.

When it was all over, my half of Roger and Clare's half of Don were eventually hung in the shed to cool overnight (above right), we washed the driveway of the blood and bits, then went into the house to share a bottle of Clare's wine and cook dinner. As we sat at the table in the dooryard of the farmhouse, we toasted each pig and thanked them for their lives and the good food they would provide.

Read the other posts in this series: Roger and Me, Roger Grows Up, Saying Goodbye, The Meat of the Matter and Pasture to Plate.

Summer Salad Smackdown: Feasting Chilean Style

I'd been looking forward to this particular evening for years, ever since I found out that one of my neighbors was from Chile. We'd see each other at the dog park, eventually sharing bottles of wine and dinners, and he'd promised that one day he'd make a real Chilean dinner for us.

That night finally arrived late this summer, and I'd volunteered to bring a salad to go with the pastel de choclo (a beef and corn casserole, left) and chanco en piedra (tomato salsa served with bread) he was planning to make. I asked if tomatoes would be appropriate, since they were ripening in our garden. He said tomato salads are very popular in Chilean cuisine, and I began researching various recipes online.

I ran across a website, Eat Wine Blog, written by an American woman living in Chile, Liz Caskey, that had a recipe that sounded very promising. I wrote to ask permission to use it on the blog and she wrote back immediately.

"This salad is a staple on every Chilean table," she wrote. "I am sure if you polled any Chilean, they would name this as a perennial favorite…The freshness of the tomatoes, mildness of the onions, and the herbs create crunchy, juicy, tangy, herby ecstasy in your mouth."

She added, "You'll be licking the plate, especially if they're heirloom tomatoes or the shirtsoakers we get here from Limache."

And you know what? She was absolutely right.

Chilean Tomato Salad
Adapted from Liz Caskey's Eat Wine Blog

1  red onion
1 tsp. of salt or sugar
6 c. chopped tomatoes, various colors and sizes
¼ c. cilantro, chopped fine
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. red wine vinegar
Sea salt to taste
1/8 tsp. black pepper

Slice the onion paper-thin, cutting with the grain (lengthwise). Separate the sections with your fingers. To temper, sprinkle a teaspoon of salt or sugar, combine well with your hands to mix. Set aside for 30 minutes.

In the meantime, chop the tomatoes into a large bowl. Traditionally, most Chileans will peel them, though it's fine to leave the skins on.

When the onion has rested and rendered its “milk,” rinse it well with cold water and gently squeeze out the excess liquid. Arrange the onions on top of the tomatoes and top with the chopped cilantro. Drizzle with olive oil and red wine vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Lightly toss before serving.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Farm Bulletin: Wheat Fruits

If you're like me and have been confused about wheat, corn and whether to soak beans or just cook them and get it over with, contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm has the answer for you. So stick with this one, read it all the way through, and all will be revealed.

Not too many years ago, the term "wheat berry" slipped into the culinary lexicon, probably from the purveyors of sugary breakfast material. We know it is a lost cause, but as berry and wheat growers, it still sticks in our craw. Not only is there nary a trace of resemblance between a kernel of wheat and a berry, but it has also displaced two very good words to describe the food: wheat kernels and wheat grains. They are part of our language. We talk about a "grain of truth" or a "kernel of truth," never a "berry of truth." Ah, but as so often happens, there is grain of truth in the term, even though it obviously seeped out of some sort of crude marketing scheme now lost to memory. Both berries and wheat kernels are types of fruit.

A flint corn kernel split the same way as the wheat at top, with the embryo at the bottom. The lighter band of cells just under the skin is the aleurone layer.

The wheat kernel (top, with the relatively small embryo at the left) is a fruit characteristic of the grasses. Kernels of corn, millet, barley and wheat, and the seed you sow to grow a lawn, are all a fruit called a caryopsis. But, you aver, fruits are seeds surrounded by pulpy flesh, often sweet and delectable, and wheat looks just like a seed. Actually, a fruit is the ovary tissue that remains with the seed after it detaches from the mother plant, whether it is fleshy, pulpy or dry. The outer part of the wheat kernel, called the bran, or the pericarp among botanists, is actually the remains of the plant's ovary tissue that has dried, forming a hard protective coat. Inside the thin pericarp lies the seed itself. If you look very closely, the fruit of wheat has a characteristic shock of white bristles at the top of kernel.

If you soak a kernel of any grain for a day or so and, when it is soft, slice it lengthwise with a razor, you can easily see the various parts of the caryopsis with a hand lens or a microscope. I have found the macro setting on a digital camera with good resolution is a very useful microscope. As noted, the pericarp forms the outer skin. Inside, there a single layer of relatively large cells that looks almost as if someone drew a thin line just inside the pericarp. Called the aleurone, it is the outermost layer of the endosperm tissue. The kernel has a vault of food contained within the endosperm, and the aleurone layer provides the enzymes, the keys, needed to unlock the food. Inside of the aleurone is the starchy part of the endosperm. It is mostly starch with some protein and oils in the mix. This part of the endosperm contains the food necessary to grow a root in order to provide water and minerals to the growing plant, and a leaf to start the process of making sugars from the sun. Just add water, and life hastens again. Even when it is dormant, a seed is living and respiring, and this why seeds gradually loose their viability. Some after a year, some after a decade or more.

At the base of kernel lies the embryo, or germ as it is known to millers. This fatty bit of tissue is a fully assembled plant ready to grow roots and leaves. The first leaf is fully grown. Called the scutellum, and this leaf remains pressed against the endosperm, never to see the light of day. The scutellum is unique to the grasses, and its primary role is to absorb the nutrients released from the endosperm as rapidly as possible, and transfer them to the growing roots and leaves. Most of the fats in the kernel are in the scutellum. All plants except orchids produce endosperm cells. In most plants, the endosperm is absorbed by the embryo and stored in the seed leaves cotyledons. The two halves of the chickpeas are the seed leaves that absorbed the endosperm.

When cooking mature grains and pulses, such as wheat or beans, we always recommend soaking them overnight. Yes, this requires a modicum of planning and foresight. Some people resist and just cook them, or haul out the heavy metal in the form of a pressure cooker. True, if the grains or beans are fresh, you can soften them and render an edible food. But this impatience and lack of finesse means a less flavorful bean or grain in our experience.

Why is that, you might ask? Allowing the plant's own enzymes to work on the starches and proteins for a day or so, and starting the process of breaking down the starches and proteins naturally, makes for a more tender and sweeter grain or bean. Moreover, in many of the seeds, complex compounds are released into the surrounding soil during germination that are not always good to eat. The compounds may be protective in function, or serve as attractants to root fungi. You can smell and taste these compounds in the soaking water, and decide whether they will enrich your life. The only beans we cook in the soaking water are black turtles. One silly notion often floated out there is that soaking leaches out the minerals. This idea that nutrients pour out of a germinating seed willy nilly makes no sense at all, but is repeated endlessly. As noted, some of the compounds actively released by the seed are best poured down the sink.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Thinking of Eating: Saying Goodbye

"You're cruisin' for a bruisin'," were his exact words. I'd been interviewing Portland bartender Dave Shenaut for an article about Portland Cocktail Week, and he asked what I'd been up to lately. I told him about Roger, the pig I was getting from Clare Carver of Big Table Farm, and that I'd wanted to get to know him, to put a name to the food on my table.

I've had other friends express everything from horror to admiration about the idea, but when I went out to Big Table to say a last goodbye to Roger before he was slaughtered, I knew that Mr. Shenaut had hit the nail on the head.

When I went into the pasture he shares with Don, the other pig Clare is raising, Roger drank some of the water we'd just poured into his bowl. Then, while Don slurped away, Roger came over and stood near me so I could scratch his ears and back. Clare had said that he liked his belly rubbed, so when I reached over his back and started scratching his belly, he slowly sank to his knees and rolled over on his side. He closed his eyes, and his piggy mouth turned up as if he was smiling.

As much as I've dreaded and, in an odd way, looked forward to it, this is Roger's last day. At six o'clock this evening, Richard will drive up to Clare's farm and kill Roger and Don, giving them an instant and humane death. I'll be there, as will another family who are taking half of one of the pigs. It's going to be hard, and tomorrow morning we'll butcher the meat, wrap it up and freeze it for what I'm sure will be some amazing meals.

I'll miss you Roger. You were a good pig.

Read the other posts in this series: Roger and Me, Roger Grows Up, The Day Finally Comes, The Meat of the Matter and Pasture to Plate.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Travels with Chili: Astoria Redux

I can't say it was better than our Fourth of July camping trip that featured the 14 Dozen Raw Oysters Throwdown (which we demolished, by the way). But when you get a weekend in Astoria that includes a room that may well have one of the most spectacular river views ever, and then get to have fresh-off-the-boat Oregon albacore prepared by the best chefs in town, well, that makes for a pretty memorable getaway.

The room was in the Cannery Pier Hotel which, unlike most hotels with "pier" in the name, is actually built on…yes…a pier sticking out into the Columbia River. As a matter of fact, the balcony of our first-floor room was just a few feet above the water that lapped the pilings supporting the building. The first morning as I stood in my plush hotel-supplied robe drinking a cup of coffee, a giant container ship chugged past a few dozen yards away, an awesome sight when you're just waking up, let me tell you.

In another unusual twist, the bathroom had a claw-foot bathtub discreetly placed behind a cutout in the bathroom wall, allowing the bather a view of the Astoria-Megler Bridge that soars over the hotel (top photo). And for those who prefer to let someone else do the driving, the hotel sports three 40s and 50s-era cars whose driver is happy to squire passengers around town.

On arrival the first afternoon we were desperately in need of some snackage, and found the Bridgewater Bistro conveniently situated on the waterfront next to the hotel. Though we were a little early for happy hour, the big barn-like space and deck with views of the water had a promising small plates menu that was perfect for our needs.

With a beer for Dave and wine for me, we ordered their calamari, boquerones of local anchovies and the oyster sampler. The oysters (above right) were local Willapa Bays, served as shooters with vodka cocktail sauce, smoked (on slaw) and in the shell with a crazy Bloody Mary sorbet. Though I'm not a big fan of mignonette or sauce with my raw oysters, the tomatoey, spicy sorbet complemented the flavor and creamy freshness of the oysters perfectly, and I'm going to be trying to recreate it here at home.

After a quick nap and some claw foot bath action, we decided to walk the mile or so downtown to Clementes where we were meeting our tour group for dinner. It was a clear, balmy evening and the half-hour stroll along the waterfront promenade was just the right preamble (no pun intended) to our dinner.

Gordon and Lisa Clement owned a nearby chowder restaurant and felt there was a need, as well as a market, for a dinner place in Astoria that featured local seafood and organic produce. They began working with area farmers and fishermen to develop their menu, which not only means everything is fresh but also seasonal, a nice fit with Gordon's love of Italian cuisine. He also has a deft hand when it comes to seafood and understands how to make the most of it while doing the least to it, as exemplified by the amazing albacore carpaccio with blood orange infused olive oil (left).

Another chef, Christopher Holen of Baked Alaska, demonstrated his love of local albacore and a bit of his native Alaskan bravado the next day with a dish called Thundermuck Tuna. It's basically a tuna loin dusted with locally roasted coffee grounds, seared rare and served with a honey ginger sesame sauce, balsamic reduction and pickled ginger. Not everyone's cup of tea (or coffee, as the case may be), but certainly original.

At that demonstration we also got a taste of a special lager brewed for Astoria's 200th birthday, a Pre-Prohibition 1811 Lager from Fort George Brewing, presented by affable head brewer Spencer Gotter. A light and refreshing beer with a nice backbone of flavor, he was excited to let us know that it was going to be appearing in stores soon…in cans! For those of you who haven't heard, cans are the new container of choice for many brewers, the technology having vastly improved over the tinny-tasting nastiness that most of us remember.

The one place we didn't make it to was the Blue Scorcher Bakery, a collective business that shares a building with Fort George. It apparently features a wide range of stunning breads and pastries, but it's developing a niche in gluten-free circles for weekly Gluten-Free Fridays with tasty pastries and lunches. Which gives us more than enough reason to go back, hopefully soon!

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Farm Bulletin: Polite Society

There are many reasons I love publishing the essays of contributor Anthony Boutard—his slow, even, considered style and his dry wit among them. But chiefly it's because of the passion he so ably communicates about his work at Ayers Creek Farm. We city folks rarely consider the insects and smaller creatures around us unless they crawl or burrow into our lives, and then the usual response is a lethal one. Anthony gives us a reason to reconsider our reaction.

Early Wednesday morning, the small, open nest of the Polistes wasps at the corner of the chlorination cage (near the top right corner of the cage in photo at left) was greeted by a creature wearing a black gas mask, along with a yellow rubber apron and garish green elbow length gloves that covered most of the monster's famous white shirt. These beautiful and gentle wasps have a sort of bovine curiosity, and cluster shoulder-to-shoulder to watch the changing of our chlorine cylinder. We use the chlorine dioxide gas to disinfect our irrigation water. Changing cylinders is a potentially dangerous task that must be conducted seriously with redundant checks, and early in the day when the body and mind are still fresh. The tank is placed on classic balance beam scale such as you find in an old doctor's office. When the tank's weight drops by 150 pounds it is empty. The Polistes were unaffected by the oddly clad visitor and the rattling of their residence, as the empty tank was removed, the heavy new tank wrestled upon the scale, and the new tare noted in the log book. All in a day's life for the Polistes.

The Polistes can deliver a painful sting, but they are by nature laconic souls, so much so that we call them the "polite wasps." In twelve years of working around these wasps, I have been stung once when I moved the pump to its summer position. We don't like to kill them, so where they are unwelcome, such as inside the pump housing, we spray the area with Fluid Film, a non-toxic, lanolin-based lubricant of choice on the farm. They cannot build a nest on the greasy surface. Polistes feed their larvae chewed up caterpillars, earning them accolades as beneficial insects, part of the web of relationships necessary for a successful organic farm. Those that nest on our heavy truck enjoy day trips to Canby, Needy and Cornelius without any noticeable attrition in their numbers. We have two nests in the cowling of our blast sprayer, and they tolerate the howling fan and heady brew we use as a foliar feed. Almost every one of the large steel pipes at end of our berry trellises has a nest inside.

Polistes are social wasps. After mating in the autumn, the females overwinter clustered in a tree cavity or more commonly in birdhouses at Ayers Creek. They are called foundresses, and come the following summer they establish the new nests. Either a single foundress or a group of sister foundresses will create a new colony. In the case of those with multiple foundresses, one will be the dominant queen and the others subordinates, or workers. Unlike the other social Hymenoptera (ants, bees and wasps) where the female workers are sterile, in Polistes the subordinates can and do lay eggs when the queen isn't paying attention (the nest with eggs and larvae at right). Recent research published last month in Science (v. 333:874), also revealed that completely unrelated females often live in the colony and sneak an occasional egg into the mix. Apparently larger colonies confer certain advantages that outweigh the loss of strict breeding controls that exist in a smaller, single foundress colony.

We often regard social behavior in the social insects as a very mechanical, fixed structure, but in the case of Polistes, different arrangements are possible even in their polite society. Interestingly, salmon exhibit a similar phenomenon, where a small percentage are born pioneers and forsake the natal stream for a new and unfamiliar one. The acorn woodpeckers that nest as a colony in oaks exhibit a similar structure to Polistes. Unrelated  acorn woodpeckers can be members of the colony and participate in managing the acorn granaries and raising the young. And in some species of songbirds, the male will help raise the clutch even though not all of the chicks share his genes. Complex and varying family structures are probably the norm in nature, despite what the nagging moralists would have us believe.

When you grab a can of spray to send these gentle Polistes to their death, ponder for a moment the work they do about the yard picking caterpillars off your cabbages and roses. If that fails to sway you, glance into the eyes of the pale larvae in each of the outer paper cells and consider that one of them might be the offspring of a plucky outsider who managed to sneak in an egg against the social conventions of the colony. Yes, September should be "Appreciate the Hymenoptera Month" as it is certainly the time when this great and varied insect order reaches its peak population. Have a heart and give a pass to Polistes.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Why I Buy Oregon Albacore

I can't think of a better illustration of why to buy Oregon albacore than this video of a small cannery I visited on a recent trip to Astoria, Oregon.

Mark Kujala, Skipanon co-owner and the mayor of Warrenton.

The Skipanon Brand cannery, now run by the second generation of the Kujala family of Warrenton, fishes for tuna off the coast of Oregon using the hook-and-line method that eliminates by-catch, the unintended harvesting of other species. Then they bring the fish into their small cannery built by Norman Kujala on the banks of the Skipanon River in 1978.

Anna, originally from Kentucky, worked at Bumble Bee until it moved out of Warrenton.

The loins are filleted and cleaned by a small crew of local women who've been working for the family for decades. The fresh loins are then sliced, hand-packed into cans with two salt pellets and sent through the ancient canning machine. The wire cage holding the cans is lifted into a large pressure cooker that cooks the fish, which means the fish cooks in its own juice without needing oil or water to keep it moist. Then the rich broth can be added to pump up the flavor of whatever dish the fish is used in.

Is it any wonder I love this product? I'm so glad to have found out about it!

Details: Skipanon Brand albacore can be found at the Saturday Beaverton Farmers' Market, ordered online at their website or found at many stores around the state. Most markets have other brands of Oregon albacore available. They're well worth looking for or asking about.

Conserving a Resource

We're pretty old school around here. Both Dave and I grew up on opposite sides of the country but both with our noses buried in books—solving mysteries, flying in rocket ships, sailing the seven seas and generally living a much more exciting life than we found in our middle class homes and public school classrooms.

Dave eventually became a newspaperman, working in a real old-fashioned newsroom, with typewriters clacking and telephones ringing and years of accumulated coffee stains and cigarette burns on the desks. And there was always a haze of smoke floating in the air from the cigarettes dangling from the reporters' lips.

We actually met at a newspaper when I was in college and had a summer job in the ad department doing paste-up. Instead of going on dates he'd take me on reporting trips out to surrounding communities. When Mt. St. Helens exploded, we and droves of reporters rushed up to cover the story.

Today we still get two newspapers every day, and a perfect Sunday morning requires nothing more than the Sunday papers and good strong coffee.

I love the special sections in the papers, especially FoodDay in Tuesday's Oregonian, which I've been fortunate to write for in my new-found career as a food writer. So I was surprised, shocked even, when I opened the Oregonian on Tuesday to find that FoodDay, instead of having it's own section, had been merged with that day's Living section. Instead of its usual six pages, it was down to fewer than four. And the usual Living features, the comics and the TV listings were simply tagged on to the end, a bizarre mash-up of both content and style.

FoodDay's editor Katherine Miller, in response to an e-mail I sent expressing my condolences and questions, said "this change has been in the works for several months. FOODday is now four pages (once a month the fourth page will be the back of the section), instead of six. The move was part of the reorganization of the paper's features staff outlined last Sunday in an editorial by Executive Editor Peter Bhatia. This is also a move that many other newspapers have already made. In October I'll be attending the Association of Food Journalists conference in [Charleston, SC], where I'm sure I'll hear many similar stories."

It's a sad development, especially at this moment when Portland's food culture and the bounty of the region is exploding on the national scene. So how can we stop the demise of such an important resource about local food? Subscribe to the paper, write the editor, and let them know that FoodDay is important.