Friday, December 30, 2011

Wishing for a Purple 2012

 Click on panels to enlarge.

This is a Christmas card we received from our friend Dirk Savagewood from his secret celebrity hideaway in Vermont, and makes an appropriate post for the upcoming election year. Here's hoping it brings less division and more accord!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Fiber Terrorism

While some may claim that yarn bombing has jumped the shark when internet searches start turning up images of tanks and city buses covered in colorful knitwear, this little example I found the other day in Southeast Portland still brought a smile to my face.

I mean, some knitter saw this lonely, cold, industrial-looking bike rack and thought, "Hey, I've got some yarn that would perk up that little rack." So, yes, the big, über art projects can continue to hog the spotlight, but give me the small, random ones that pop up as I go about my day. Sweet!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Kitty Has Puppies!

What's a better start to the holiday weekend than seeing a pile of Cardigan Corgi puppies? These guys (well, five guys and three girls) are just 10 days old. Their eyes are still closed but they're fat and wiggly and demanding regular feedings from their mom, Kitty.

Oh, and don't worry about being tempted…they're all spoken for, thank goodness! I'll be posting on their progress, so check back soon!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Great Gifting: Keeping Spirits Bright

This year I've spouted off about my idea of the perfect gift, so I'll spare you a repeat of that rant, but how about a (pun intended) self-liquidating gift for the imbibers on your list? Most of them would be thrilled to get that special bottle of Islay single malt they've had their eye on, but how about keeping it local and giving some hooch from the 'hood?

For lovers of liqueur, both New Deal Distillery and House Spirits have coffee liqueurs that are miles better than that syrupy Kahlua you drank in college. Plus they're made with locally roasted coffees from Water Avenue and Stumptown, respectively, and would be brilliant teamed with a copy of the Big Lebowski (for White Russians…get it?).

New Deal also has a new Ginger Liqueur that would be terrific teamed with soda and mint, or as a mixer in a ginger drop or gimlet. Stone Barn Brandyworks has an appropriately holiday-esque product in their scarlet-red Cranberry Liqueur, eminently sippable over ice or topped with soda for a refreshing spritzer.

For those of a Scandinavian bent, or who have a taste for licorice, there is unaged Aquavit from House Spirits available at the distillery, though their aged Aquavit, which has been drawing raves in national pubs, is about as "rare as a dodo bird" according to the young man who answered the phone at the distillery. He suggested checking the OLCC search engine for availability of this as well as their made-from-local-barley White Dog unaged whiskey.

Even better, if friends and family are in town over the holiday, get them out of the house and away from your liquor cabinet by taking a tour of Distillery Row (check first to make sure the distilleries will be open). That way you can buy them a bottle of their favorite spirit and be their bestest friend ever. At least until they sober up.

Read the other Great Gifting posts: The Art Around You, Eating is Believing and Giving from the Heart.

In a Fog, Seeing Clearly

There's something about getting out of the city that somehow opens my eyes to the beauty of the landscape. I was driving out to Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston the other day and, as I passed through Hillsboro, a dense fog settled over the fields, muting the colors and diffusing the light. The fog and low clouds remained throughout the day, and when I got back to town I heard that it had been a beautiful, sunny day in the city. And you know what? I wasn't disappointed to have missed it at all.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Fritter Chronicles: Secular Latkes

As regular readers of GoodStuffNW know, contributor Jim Dixon of RealGoodFood is all about the fritters. He's made them from everything from corn to dandelion greens to farro to favas. Here's his take on that all-time Hanukkah classic, latkes.

I’m just a country goy, but I love latkes and Hanukkah starts this week. Whether you celebrate anything at all this time of year, these eastern European potato fritters make winter delicious. And the oil in the miracle of the oil that Hanukkah celebrates was, of course, olive oil. (Bonus spelling trivia: Chanuka vs Hanukkah.)

Instead of copying my favorite latke recipes here, you can go to my secular latke page and find links for basic potato lakes (below), my Tex-Mex version and the super treyf sweet potato bacon latkes. Oy!

Basic Potato Latkes

Grate a couple of russet potatoes into a large mixing bowl. Grab a handful of the grated spuds and squeeze them over the sink, getting as much moisture out as you can. Repeat until you’ve squeezed the whole bowl.

Add an egg, a couple of tablespoons of flour (I use flour; tradition says matzoh meal, but I don’t usually have any when I feel like making latkes), a good pinch of sea salt and a finely chopped medium onion. Cover the bottom of a heavy skillet with a slick of extra virgin olive oil, and heat it over medium until it just starts to shimmer. Carefully add large spoonfuls of the latke mix to the hot oil, gently flatttening as you go. Keep the latkes small, about 2 inches across max.

Cook until brown (3-4 minutes), carefully flip, and brown the other side. I like mine with ketchup.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Great Gifting: Giving from the Heart

My idea of the perfect gift has these attributes:
  • It doesn't need dusting.
  • It reminds you of the person who gave it to you.
  • It makes you feel good every time you think of it.
Then add in:
  • It makes someone else's life better.
  • It benefits the community.
  • It may just change the world.
If that sounds like a little bit much to expect from a single gift, consider what Heifer International has done for impoverished families all over the world through donations of farm animals. Or what MercyCorps does for children and families worldwide, not just with disaster relief, but with programs teaching women to read, building irrigation canals, providing safe cookstoves and helping pregnant women with health care and nutritional information.

If you'd rather go hyperlocal and do something right here at home that will benefit your neighbors, consider giving a donation in your giftee's name to any of the following groups.
  • Farmers Ending Hunger began with Oregon farmers and ranchers who donating the food from an acre or two to feed the hungry. It resulted in thousands of tons of fresh food going to Oregon Food Bank for distribution throughout Oregon and Clark County, Washington. Consider adopting an acre or even a single row!
  • Zenger Farm is a working urban farm that models, promotes and educates the community about sustainable food systems, environmental stewardship, community development and access to good food for all. They also provide training for immigrant and refugee farmers in language and business skills as well as urban agriculture.
  • Oregon Food Bank works in Oregon and Clark County, Washington, with partner agencies to distribute emergency food to hungry families. They also address the root cause of hunger through public policy advocacy, nutrition and garden education and helping communities strengthen local food systems.
  • The Pongo Fund is Oregon's emergency pet food bank providing nutrition to the pets of the state's homeless and less fortunate men, women and children. It began when Larry Chusid saw two dogs, Jackson and Jewels, living with a homeless family under the Morrison Bridge and struck up a conversation with them. He brought food, treats, dog beds and coats…and that was more than one million meals ago.
If you have a favorite local charity that's making a difference in our community, feel free to leave it in the comments below. Happy holidays!

Read the other Great Gifting posts: The Art Around You, Eating is Believing and Keeping Spirits Bright.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Date Night in Italy

Sometimes events conspire to change the most engrained habits. And I hate that. Or I would hate it if the event in question didn't bring with it some dang fine eatin'. Which is why the other evening we found ourselves downtown…yes, the downtown that we've assiduously avoided for years because parking is awful, the restos aren't worth the trouble, etc., etc.…for a date night dinner at newly opened Via Tribunali.

Half a block from Voodoo Doughnuts, it's on the corner of the same little avenue (SE Ankeny) that is home to the hotter-than-hot Central and the older-than-old Dan and Louis Oyster Bar. Its small footprint contains a long bar, a few booths, a scattering of tables and a huge mother of a wood-fired oven built onsite by a craftsman from Naples who used mortar dusted with ash from Mt. Vesuvius.

The ingredients for the pizza that comes out of that oven is in accordance with the Associazone Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN), which dictates the authenticity of everything from the pH level of the water to the pedigree of the mozzarella di bufala. But the genius of the finished product is the responsibility of pizzaiolo Gennaro Nasti (top and above left), who was brought from his native Naples to oversee the first firings of the oven and the training of the staff in what he considers the near-holy calling of making pizza.

Which is quite a trick considering that Nasti doesn't speak more than a few words of English, but the night we were there (and I urge you to get the booth right next to the oven) we watched him quietly showing the staff how to press out the dough and stretch it ever so gently into the proper shape. A pat on the back and a nod of the head communicated everything about his passion for his art, and the staff has clearly caught the fever.

For our antipasti we chose the misto salumi, a meat board of prosciutto di parma, speck, mortadella, porchetta, castelvetrano olives and grana padano. And we got to watch as the server went over to the giant red hand-cranked meat slicer on the bar and peeled wafer-thin slices off the big hunks of salumi he'd pulled out from behind the bar. The octopus that came next was a salad of firm sections of tentacles tossed in vinaigrette on a bed of whole radicchio leaves, simple and perfect.

But the highlight was definitely the Via Tribunali (left), a work of art that started with dough stretched into a roughly rectangular shape, with a line of herbed ricotta placed on one long side and a line of smoked mozzarella down the other. The outside dough was then folded over each line of cheese and brought to the center where it was pressed and sealed. This was then placed in the oven—so hot it only takes 45 seconds to bake a pizza to perfection—and when it was pulled out of the fiery furnace, fresh cherry tomatoes were laid down the center between the rows of cheese and lightly dressed arugula topped that. Deserving of a hearty OMFG if anything in this world is.

We ordered a bottle of red to go with it all, a lovely, reasonably priced bottle from the Piedmont, and while I can't speak to the pricing structure of the list, there were plenty of bottles we could afford. Our leftover slices of the pizza they'd made especially for Dave, one without mozzarella (sorry AVPN) were brought to us in a box embellished with a portrait of a young woman (right). When asked about its…um…"unique perspective," our server said they'd requested an illustration of a "young country girl" from an artist in Italy and the resulting portrait was what was sent back.

Needless to say, when we got home Dave insisted on saving that portrait as a memory of our evening in Napoli. I prefer to remember Gennaro's hands gently stretching out the dough on the counter as he worked to transfer his passion to his young students.

Details: Via Tribunali, 36 SW 3rd Ave. 503-548-2917.

Creamy Goodness

There's nothing much more satisfying than a piping hot bowl of soup and a warm slice of fresh bread on a cold winter night. And that's just what I was in the mood for last night as the temperature outside plunged below freezing and I added another layer of clothing to my ensemble.

Not to go off topic, but when my brother gave me an immersion blender for Christmas many years ago, I thought, "Oh, great…another kitchen tool that's going to molder on a back shelf for years until it gets sent off with all the other junk we don't need."

I couldn't have been more wrong, since it's become my go-to appliance for all manner of puréed sauces and soups. Which is where we rejoin the theme established in the first paragraph. (Ha!) Noticing that I had leeks, potatoes and cauliflower all ready to be put to use, I decided to attempt a decadently comforting concoction, something kind of like a smooth chowder.

Roasting the cauliflower didn't add much more effort or time to the process, since it roasted in about the time it took to get the other ingredients prepped and simmering. Then it was just a matter of getting the creaminess I was looking for, which came when I added the sour cream (Tofutti sour cream, in our case, due to Dave's lactose issue). With the aforementioned warm loaf of bread and a green salad with vinaigrette to complement the comfort, we were some happy winter denizens!

Creamy Potato, Leek and Roasted Cauliflower Soup

1 medium head cauliflower, cored and divided into small florets
4 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
1/4 tsp. salt
1 medium onion, chopped fine
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
2 leeks (white and light green parts only), halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise into 1/2"pieces
2 medium russet potatoes, peeled or unpeeled, cut in 1/2" cubes
1/4 tsp. dried thyme
8 c. chicken stock
1/2 c. sour cream, optional
1/4 tsp. white pepper
Salt to taste

Preheat oven to 375°.

Place cauliflower florets in large bowl and add 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Stir to combine. Put in Pyrex baking dish in single layer and place in oven. Roast for 40 minutes or until fork easily pierces thickest parts.

While cauliflower is roasting, heat remaining 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat in soup pot or Dutch oven. Add onion and garlic and sauté till tender. Add leeks and sauté till wilted. Add potatoes and sauté for about 10 minutes, then add thyme and stir to combine. Add chicken stock and bring to a simmer. When cauliflower is tender, add to pot and simmer another 20 minutes or so. Add sour cream, if desired, and white pepper. Using immersion blender, purée until smooth, then adjust salt to taste. Serve immediately or keep warm on the stove on lowest setting, stirring frequently to prevent scorching.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

This Bee's Life

My friend Linda is in Paris looking after her daughter who is finishing her school finals there. (What a good mom!) In her spare time she's exploring the city and came across these beehives in the Luxembourg Gardens. The apiary school, called the Rucher du Luxembourg, was created by the Société Centrale d’Apiculture on the Senate estate in 1856, and it still holds classes and produces honey from its hives. It sells its bounty once a year at an annual autumn honey festival at the garden’s Orangerie or nursery.

A is for Aceto Balsamico

For those of us who wonder why in the world anyone would pay what seems like an outrageous price for some fancy Italian balsamic vinegar when there are plenty of cheaper options available on store shelves, contributor Jim Dixon of RealGoodFood provides an explanation proving, once again, that you get what you pay for.

Among the many amazing things we did during our month in Italy was meeting Laura and Deeana, the two women who operate Profumi Estensi, my balsamic vinegar supplier (and a special thanks Leslie and Manual from Viridian for the connecting us). While we’d emailed for a few years, this was our first face-to-face, and both Judith and I felt it was a high point of the trip.

Not only did we really, really like Laura and Deanna (and their families, who fed us and showed us Modena), but we came away with a much better understanding of the amount of hard work, deep-seated knowledge, and just plain magic that goes into aceto balsamico.

Most of what’s sold as balsamic vinegar is just red wine vinegar sweetened with caramelized sugar and has no relation to the real stuff. But it’s cheap to make and generates nice profit margins for manufacturers willing to capitalize on gullible shoppers.

Real balsamic vinegar begins with the freshly pressed juice of Trebbiano grapes. The juice or must is cooked down to about 30% of its original volume, then it begins the slow fermentation process in a set of barrels made from different woods called a batteria (photos, top and left). Each year, if the vinegar maker thinks it’s good enough, some of the vinegar from the last barrel in the batteria is removed. That barrel is topped up from the next oldest, and the process moves up the line with some of the newly reduced must going into the first barrel. A batteria may only yield a few liters of vinegar every year.

Profumi Estensi works with vinegar makers who produce balsamico on a very small scale, primarily for their family and friends. They’re willing to sell a little to offset their costs, which can reach hundreds of euros every year. We visited one and climbed the steep ladder up into the attic to see the acetaia (ah-che-taya or vinegar works). Hunched under the low ceiling, Judith and I followed Sergio as he flipped back the cloth squares covering the evaporation holes on the tops of the barrels, dipping spoons into the thick balsamico.

Only a handful of people ever get to see a family acetaia, and we felt incredibly privileged. Sergio inherited some of his barrels from his father, and he grew up learning how to mix vinegar from the different barrels in the batteria to get the complex flavor of true aceto balsamico. Watching him move among the barrels and seeing his eyes light up as he talked about the vinegar, we both wondered how he could bear to part with a single drop.

Roasted Zucca with Balsamico

Laura and Deeana served us this in Modena. The simple squash highlights the balsamico, and the vinegar transforms the humble vegetable. Use one of the larger, pumpkin-like winter squash; they’re a bit dryer than butternut, delicata, or acorn.

Cut the squash into slices about one inch thick; leave the peel attached. Arrange on a sheet pan that’s been drizzled with a bit of extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with a bit of flor de sal, and roast at 350° for about 30 minutes or until the squash is tender.

Let each diner dribble a few drops of balsamic on their plate. Gently daub each bite of squash in the vinegar and eat. Or if you’re feeling flush, drizzle each slice with balsamic before serving.

All photos by Jim Dixon from his travelogue, Italia Redux.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Great Gifting: Eating is Believing

Got foodie friends on your list? People who know their way around a kitchen? For cooks it's easy…think how thrilling it would be to get a basket of pastas, beans or grains with cans of San Marzano tomatoes and a jar of imported salted anchovies.

For non-cooks there are scads of jams, jellies, pickles and roasted peppers…or get them a gift certificate from a local cheese shop packaged with a small cutting board and decorative spreaders. Conjure a selection of coffees or quick cake and bread mixes. Make it even more special by going local, either at the farmers' market or a neighborhood grocery.
  • Cellar Door Coffee Roasters has a wonderful range of coffees sourced from small estates, hand-roasted by Andrea Pastor in the roaster her husband, Jeremy Adams, built. Others to consider: Courier, Coava, Heart, Blue Kangaroo.
  • Ayers Creek Farm jams and preserves are without peer and can be found at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market and specialty groceries in town. But don't forget Anthony's organically certified beans, polenta and hominy.
  • Dulcet Cuisine has a killer lineup of mustards, sauces, ketchups and dressings. I'm particularly addicted to their Madras Curry Mustard. Available at Foster & Dobbs and other specialty groceries.
  • Real Good Food's Jim Dixon imports many olive oils from Italy and carries Katz Vinegars as well as Washington's Bluebird farro and Haricot Beans. Find him at the Portland Farmers' Market on Dec. 17, and on Dec. 23 from noon to 3 pm at his warehouse store in the Activspace Building, 833 SE Main #122.
  • Bob's Red Mill has great cake and bread mixes that make great gifts or stocking stuffers and are handy when guests drop in over the holidays. Not always made from local grains, but ground here, they're found at most better grocery stores.
Read the other Great Gifting post: Seeing the Art Around You, Giving from the Heart and Keeping Spirits Bright.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Sauer Is As Sour Does

If it wasn't for a teensy misunderstanding, I might have been enjoying sauerkraut long before I did. You see, my mother knew that my father's father had come to the United States from Germany as a young man. So, as a young wife wanting to please her new husband, she tried serving him meals that would appeal to what she thought of as his German-American upbringing.

Slicing the cabbage.

Occasionally we would come to the family dinner table to find her version of a German dish was being featured, that is, sauerkraut straight from the jar heated on the stove with hot dogs (Oscar Meyer, no doubt) simmered in it. I think it took my father years to tell her he really wasn't fond of sauerkraut, but not before the tart, vinegary, tingle-your-back-teeth feeling was etched into all our minds.

Mixing in the salt.

That all changed for me when Dave and I went to France, traveling through the region called Alsace. Staying in an auberge with a fantastic restaurant on the first floor, we had the regional specialty called choucroute garnie, sauerkraut simmered for hours in a rich stock with sausages, pork, ham and other meats. It was truly a revelation, and forever changed the way I think about sauerkraut.

Packing the crock.

Which is why, when the subject of sauerkraut came up at a dinner we attended recently, I effused about my love for fermented cabbage. It turned out that the fellow I was speaking to was a sauerkraut aficionado, making gallons of the stuff every year from local cabbage, and he asked if I'd like to come observe the process. As you might expect, he'd barely finished asking when I answered, "Hell, yes."

I showed up one morning to find Ron Brey in his kitchen with several gigantic heads of green cabbage sitting on the counter. He buys them from Sun Gold Farm at the PSU farmers' market and looks for large cabbages—he buys 14 pounds total, or about three, per batch—that are tight and "hard as rocks." That amount is good for about seven quarts of sauerkraut, exactly the number of jars that will fit in his canner. He then slices the heads into quarters and then cuts those in slices about the thickness of a dime, slicing around the core.

Placing the bag of water on top.

The chiffonade from the cabbage goes into a bowl and is mixed with 11 tablespoons of salt, which almost immediately starts to "sweat" the cabbage, that is, to pull the moisture out of the leaves. Ron says he uses kosher salt because it has no additives, and mixes it in gradually as he adds more cabbage. The salt and cabbage mixture is then left to sit in the mixing bowl for six hours.

Ready to ferment!

After that, Ron transfers the shreds of cabbage into the glass crocks he uses to ferment the sauerkraut. (The lidded glass jars are from Fred Meyer and he says they're much cheaper than most of the ceramic crocks sold for making sauerkraut.) He firmly packs the sauerkraut in the crock by hand until it's about seven-eighths full, or up to the shoulder of the crock.

After fermentation.

It's important that the sauerkraut remains submerged in its liquid in the crock, and various mechanisms have been developed to press down the shreds, some of which work better than others. But here's the genius part…Ron came up with his own method that works like a charm and is so simple it's ridiculous. He takes a gallon zip-lock bag, fills it with water, and sets it in the crock on top of the cabbage. With a gallon of water weighing in at about eight pounds, it's plenty to keep that crazy sauerkraut under control, and it conforms to the shape of the crock. Awesome!

Filling the jars.

The cover is placed on the crock, and the sauerkraut goes down in Ron's basement to ferment for a couple of weeks. He likes to keep it at 65° for the fermentation…lower than that would be fine, but would slow down the process. He says, "There is some point—certainly by 80 degrees—where it becomes increasingly likely that the kraut will not ferment correctly. It can become soft, dark and lose the combination of tartness and sweetness." The kraut should remain fairly light-colored during fermentation; any serious darkening is an indication the ferment has gone wrong and should be tossed. Ditto, obviously, with mold.

The hot water bath.

After a couple of weeks the crock is brought up to the kitchen, the kraut is transferred to clean quart glass canning jars and is canned in the same kind of water bath canner my mom used for preserving fruit. Too bad she never knew about homemade sauerkraut and that paradigm-shifting choucroute.

Ron recommends the book "Stocking Up"by Carol Hupping as a basic guide for making sauerkraut and other preserved foods.

Garage Sale Soup

Every year, at contributor Jim Dixon's annual Olive Oil Garage Sale, he made his famous soup to warm the souls of shoppers willing to brave freezing temperatures to attend the sale in his driveway. Now that he's moved inside, he still makes the soup and hands it out for free to his customers to thank them for their support.

Garage Sale Soup

Soak a cup or so each of Bluebird Grain Farms farro and Haricot Farms red beans in plenty of water for at least a few hours, preferably overnight. Drain and discard the soaking water.

Chop an onion, a few stalks of celery, and a couple of carrots; cook them in a healthy glug of extra virgin olive oil for a few minutes. Add half a head of green cabbage, coarsely chopped, and a bunch of cavalo nero (aka Tuscan kale, usually sold as “lacinato” kale, a word I don’t like to use since it’s mispelled Italian; should be lacianato for "lacy"). Add the soaked beans and farro.

Pour in enough water to cover the vegetables and heat until it starts to bubble. Peel and cube a couple of yellow potatoes, add them along with a large can of diced tomatoes. Salt to taste, add a good pinch or two of Pantellerian oregano, cover, and simmer for at least an hour or until the beans and farro are tender.

Stir in about a cup of good polenta, Ayers Creek if you can get it. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, and cook for another hour. Taste, add salt if necessary, and if the soup seems flat, add a small splash of Katz Gravenstein Apple Cider or Sparkling Wine vinegar. Sometimes a little acid is just the right thing, but go easy and taste. Like all soups, this will be better the second day.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Livin' in the Blurbs: Holiday Highlights

If you, like me, are a fool for braising and roasting, then Tuesday night is your night. That's because Vermont food writer Molly Stevens, author of the IACP and James Beard award-winning cookbook All About Braising, is here to celebrate the publication of her new book, All About Roasting. And what would be the perfect venue for such a party? None other than Jason French's Ned Ludd, the city's shrine to the art of wood oven-roasted perfection. The dinner and wine comes with a copy of the book for just $80 total, a steal for the five-course meal that includes trout with tomato-orange relish, quail with shallots, a veg course of roasted brussels sprouts, sunchokes and beets, a maple-brined pork loin and dessert of roasted pineapple with star anise panna cotta. Be still my heart!

Details: All About Roasting book launch with author Molly Stevens and Jason French of Ned Ludd. Tues., Dec. 6, 6:30 pm; $80 for dinner, wine and a copy of the book (not including gratuity), reservations required. Ned Ludd, 3925 NE MLK Blvd. 503-288-6900.

* * *

There's no surer sign that the holidays are upon us than the appearance of lightbulb extravaganzas along every residential street and neighborhood shopping area. The businesses of the Beaumont district on NE Fremont are no exception, and they'll be hosting a Festival of Lights on December 9th from 5 to 9 pm to get the season kicked off in style. It goes without saying that Santa and the missus will be there, with carolers aplenty, and a Celtic celebration is anchoring a holiday market with crafts for kids. My own favorite spot, Green Dog Pet Supply, is offering pet portraits by professional pet photographer Alicia Dickerson for just $40 (up to two pets and two people per portrait). A donation of $17 from each sitting will be going to Fences for Fido, which fences yards for dogs who would otherwise remained chained outdoors. So get out of that sterile mall and rub elbows with some neighbors (and pets) this holiday…you'll enjoy it so much more!

Details: Beaumont Festival of Lights on NE Fremont, Dec. 9, 5-9 pm. Reservations required for pet portraits at Green Dog Pet Supply, 4327 NE Fremont St. 503-528-1800.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Farm Bulletin: Roots and Tubers

Much as I try to avoid publishing gossip and innuendo, in this essay contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm makes a convincing case for a heretofore unacknowledged familial connection. Please try not to be too shocked.

Books on food take pains to point out that the potato (Solanum tuberosum) and the sweet potato (Ipomea batatas) are not closely related. In a true/false test, the books are correct. The potato belongs to the large, economically important family that includes tobacco, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, and many important medicinal plants. The sweet potato is a member of the morning glory family, and is the only food plant in a family better known for its weedy and toxic members, a belle among ne'er-do-wells and brigands. Moreover, the potato is a tuber that develops from the stem, whereas the sweet potato's tuber is a root. But the lack of a relationship is a dull thought, a conversational dead end. Certainly, there are something that links them if, at least since the time of Gerarde's Herbal (1597), both have been called potatoes.

The winter roots and tubers on our market table, and prepared for our holiday feasts, deserve a closer look. They evolved within two separate traditions of agriculture that arose independently about the same time, roughly 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. The American and Eurasian foods are very different from one another in a way that reflects the differences in how agriculture developed on the two land masses.

The Eurasian roots on our table evolved from temperate biennial plants—plants that produce vegetative growth during the growing season of the first year, and in the early spring of the following year produce a flowering stalk for seed production. The root stores the energy and minerals needed for flower and seed production, nothing more. When the seeds mature and disperse, the original plant is dead. All of these plants are perpetuated by seed alone and, because they cross pollinate, each generation has a new combination of genes.

These biennials, also called winter annuals, are clustered in four economically important plant families. The beets belong to the Amaranthaceae; radishes, turnips (right) and swedes belong to the Brassicaceae; carrots, parsley root, celeriac and parsnips belong to the Apiaceae; and gobo, salsify and chicory belong to the Asteraceae. In fact, other biennials from these four families account for most of the Eurasian vegetables familiar to us, including lettuce, spinach, chard, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, escarole, fennel and endive.     

In marked contrast, the American cultivated "roots" are perennial tuberous plants, mostly originating in the tropics, and they are scattered hither and yon among various plant families. The tubers allow the plant to enter complete dormancy during dry or cold periods, and resume growth when conditions are favorable. Although they will produce seed, cultivators perpetuate the variety by replanting the tubers, called clonal reproduction, and each generation is substantially identical to the previous ones.

The sweet potato (left) originated in the lowland tropics of Central America, where there is a dry season. The Andean potato, or the spud, evolved in the region around Cuzco, Peru, at approximately 11,000 feet in elevation, but still within the tropics, an area also marked by a dry season when the plants go dormant. Oca, Oxalis tuberosa (Oxalidaceae),  ulluco, Ullucus tubrosus (Basellaceae), yacón, Smallanthus sonchifolius (Asteraceae) and ysaño, Tropaeolum tubrosum (Tropaeolaceae) are four other perennial tubers of local commercial importance originating in the Andes. Alan Kapuler of Peace Seeds in Corvallis has done a fair amount of work promoting oca for the Pacific Northwest.

The cultivated perennial tuber that has its origin outside of the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn is Helianthus tuberosus, the Jerusalem artichoke, a member of the Asteraeae. This is the one American tuber that grew in New England at the time of the Mayflower's arrival and most certainly graced the table of the ship's survivors, yet it is unlikely to find its way onto Thanksgiving menus today. The name is probably a corruption of Terneuzen, the Dutch port where vegetables from the fertile lowlands were shipped to England. (Why can't the English teach their children how to speak…)

So what do we make of these two clusters, the temperate biennials of Eurasian lands concentrated in four families, and the American perennials originating mostly between the tropics and all belonging to different families? 

Eurasian agriculture developed simultaneously with iron and draft animals. These were essential for the plowing necessary for the preparation and maintenance of a seed bed, originally to plant small grains such as barley and wheat. Annual cultivation was conducive to the growth of small-seeded biennials, first as volunteers and then as cultivated crops. For the most part, plowing works against the growth of perennial plants.

In contrast, pre-Columbian American agriculture employed neither iron implements nor draft animals. This agriculture was swidden-based. During the dry season, fire is used to open areas for cultivation (left), and these patches are maintained for a few years until the fertility released by the burning is depleted. The land is allowed to revegetate with woody perennials and the cultivator moves on to a new patch. The shrubs and vines that recolonize the untended swidden bring up a fresh load of minerals from the deep within the ground. Often the first plants to grow in the opening are nitrogen fixing legumes, further restoring fertility to the ground. The land is not abandoned. The cultivators return to forage for quelites [edible greens] and, after a few more years, to reclaim the lands again for cultivation. The cycle is on the order of three to four years of cultivation followed by ten years of rest. Within this form of agriculture, perennial tubers survived the dry season burning and sprouted with the return of the rain. Just as the Eurasian biennials, initially volunteers, were eventually domesticated in the plowed fields, a similar pattern followed with the American perennial tubers in the swiddens.

Despite the attempts of aid agencies and modern agronomists to eliminate shifting cultivation or swidden agriculture, it persists in many places, including Central America, Asia, Africa and parts of Northern Japan. Although traditional agronomists cast swidden agriculture as wasteful and polluting, the modern farm field spews forth far more pollutants, albeit invisible, than the farmers tending their milpa in Oaxaca or yakihata in the mountains of Japan. Their external combustion methods consume but a few years of accumulated wood, while our internal combustion engines and synthetic fertilizers have burned through whole geologic epochs. And the plant remains we burn in fossil fuels return no minerals and nutrients to the land.

The roots of winter provide the wonderful illustration of how agricultural practices lend shape to our foods. And when someone tells you the sweet potato and the Andean potato are not related, you will know that the story has a more interesting wrinkle rarely discussed in general conversation.

Photo of burning milpa from Dr. Darlene Applegate of Western Kentucky University.

Boots on the Ground

It was time to get serious. I could no longer countenance the flooding of my sneakers whilst slogging through the rain with the dogs, much less face water pouring in the tops or the blisters caused by ill-fitting wellies. And heaven forfend having to cancel a farm trip or mushroom foraging expedition for the want of adequate footwear!

A quick tally of those better-informed on the subject than I resulted in a landslide vote for the Muck Boot, a well-treaded, waterproof boot fit for city walks or country rambles. The breathable, flexible stock hugs the calf and doesn't gap at the top, and the shoe is insulated and padded to keep feet warm even in freezing temperatures. Plus they only come in goes-with-everything black.

The place I got them, called Hank's Boots & Workwear, was also a new discovery, with work boots and Carhartts and nary a candy-colored city lady boot in sight. And the price was less than the fancy name-brand boots at the department stores, a win all around. I've already mucked out a clogged street drain…now to go get in some serious mud. Bring it on, winter!

Details: Muck Boots at Hank's Boots & Workwear, 8878 NE Sandy Blvd. at the intersection of Prescott and Sandy. 503-253-7098.