Monday, November 28, 2016

One (Big) Squash + Two Pie Recipes = Yum!

It just so happened that Thanksgiving this year coincided with the cooking of a giant—I am not exaggerating, it was a more-than-twenty-pounder prior to slaughter—Musquée de Provence squash. Though I fully intended to bake it at some point, it provided a lovely front porch decoration during Halloween with its bronzed, almost metallic-looking sheen, dramatic striated ribs and sculptured stem.

I'm a huge fan of buying whole squash, whether Hubbard or Sibley or the Northwest's own Lower Salmon River variety. And size is no deterrent (see above). All I needed was a sharp chef's knife and a sturdy cutting board—remember, these monsters are hollow inside, so you can insert the knife at the stem, push it all the way through the bottom, then with steady pressure push the knife down. I generally slice them into halves to clean them, then section them for roasting. (In a 400-degree oven the slices soften like butter, usually within an hour.)

The unroasted flesh of Cucurbita moschata (the Latin name of this squash; also called "Potiron Bronze de Montlhery"…ooh la la!) is quite sweet, and it has a lighter texture than its cousins the acorn and butternut squashes, but with a more intense flavor than either of those, and a gorgeous, red-orange color. Roasted, it maintains its sweetness and its color, which works well with a lime-inflected soup and is perfectly suited for desserts like pie or cheesecake.

I used about a quarter of the roasted squash for a soup, then froze the rest in three zip-lock freezer bags, knowing I'd pull out two of them for pies at Thanksgiving. I'd cobbled together a recipe from researching squash pies in books and online, but found that most squash pie recipes call for puréed pumpkin or butternut. The Musquée's flesh is much more moist, so I knew I needed to cut back on any added liquid.

The second recipe I tried was from a friend who is a professional baker here in Portland, a squash pie that came from a French chef she'd worked with who hated American food. "Hilariously enough," she said, "it's a variation on the recipe from the Libby's can!"

The recipes were almost identical, with only a couple of minor variations, and for the Musquée squash I think the recipe below works well. I can't wait to try it on other kinds of squash—helloooo Lower Salmon River, I'm talkin' to you—and taste the differences between them. And I'm pretty darn sure my family won't mind me using them as testers in the process.

Squash (Pumpkin) Pie

For the crust:
1 unbaked pie crust in a 9" pie pan (recipe here)
Egg white

For the filling:
3 c. roasted Musquée de Provence squash
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. granulated sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. ginger
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 c. heavy cream or whole milk

Preheat oven to 350°.

Purée squash in food processor until smooth. Pour into large mixing bowl. Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine.

Brush the bottom of the crust with a thin layer of egg white (I use my hands for this so I can feel if there are dry spots.) Pour squash mixture into the crust. Bake 1 hour. Test for doneness by inserting a sharp knife. If it doesn't come out clean, reduce heat to 300° and continue baking until set.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Future of Our Food: New York Times Looks West

The New York Times panel described below was held on October 5, 2016, a month before the recent election, but brought out some key insights that I hope to explore in future posts in this series. Installments over the next few months will include interviews with farmers, food activists, plant breeders and policy wonks to try to get a handle on the seismic shift in our local food landscape due to the change of administrations in Washington.

The New York Times has been fascinated with Portland for years now, featuring it as a travel destination, for sure, but mostly focused on watching its food and restaurant scene evolve from a backwater of middle class meh to a powerhouse of groundbreaking local, seasonal, chef-driven cuisine. In its own transition from a national newspaper to a national media corporation, the Times has been expanding its New York-centric, issues-based series called Times Talks to a more national platform.

Recently it brought this form of live journalism to Portland, sending out Times national food correspondent Kim Severson to moderate a panel titled "The Future of Food in Portland.” The panel featured local food notables Piper Davis of Grand Central Bakery; Kanth Gopalpur of the Business Oregon Commission; chef Joshua McFadden of Ava Gene’s and Tusk; and Amanda Oborne, Vice President of Food and Farms at Ecotrust.

In an interview before the event I asked Severson why the Times chose to come to Portland.

"I’m just fascinated with where Portland is going to go now," she said. "Because [the city] got really cute and we all fell in love with it. Portland was like a really attractive 20-year-old college sophomore with a great life. But now what?"

Echoing that question after introducing her panelists, she opened the discussion asking if it wasn't time for Portland to mature a little bit.

"It all goes back to Colin the chicken," Piper Davis answered, referring to a much-joked-about sketch on the TV series "Portlandia" where two foodies pester their server with questions about their entrée. "Those of us who care where our food comes from can no longer ask that question." Instead, she said, the concern has shifted in her mind: Did this food leave the soil in better condition than it started?

"Major problems still need to be solved," she continued, saying that the national perception is that most of the work is done, when in reality people aren't talking about the gaps in the food system when it comes to the environment, sustainability and universal access to good food regardless of income or where a person lives.

Severson then turned to Josh McFadden and asked him about the city's "cheffy culture," asking how its Olympic-level chef game will affect Portland's producer-driven reputation.

Answering that he initially moved back to Portland from stints in San Francisco, Chicago and New York because of the people more than the food scene here, he said he found that "the product is as good or better than anyplace else," and that local farmers like Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm and John Eveland and Sally Brewer of Gathering Together Farm are producing innovative crops at the highest level.

Severson herself is no stranger to the Northwest, having lived in the region and worked for newspapers in Seattle, Anchorage and right here in Portland during a short stint at the Oregonian.

In our interview I asked what differentiates the Northwest and its food from that found in the rest of the country. She paused.

"There’s just something about the mix of the ruggedness of the place and the purity of the raw ingredients here," she said. "The most memorable things I’ve eaten come from the Northwest."

She added that when she was working in Alaska she got sick of salmon, referring to it as "the zucchini of Alaska." But having been away for decades now, and with wild-caught salmon a rare thing to find on the East Coast, she had an epiphany.

"Last night [at a Portland restaurant] I had a beautiful, perfectly seared piece of wild salmon," she said. "It was like heaven to me and, especially on the East Coast, the beauty of wild salmon—I know it sounds so cliché and terrible even as I’m saying it—but it’s spectacular."

Bottom line?

"I think your baseline of deliciousness is very high here," Severson said. "Your baseline, how good food that grows around here tastes, I think that’s exceptional. Exceptional."

In the South, where Severson is now based, she said, "There’s some really great produce, but it’s so crazy hot it’s tricky to grow stuff there. But there’s something very clean about it here that other places don’t have. There’s a freshness here that makes it super special to me."

Any Portland cook can tell you that freshness also has a lot to do with the proximity of local farms to the city's core, a point that was brought up by Grand Central's Piper Davis.

"No one talks about the urban growth boundary and food, but it's critically connected," Davis said of the line drawn around the city in 1980 as a land use planning boundary to control urban expansion onto farm and forest lands.

Amanda Oborne of Ecotrust, tasked with developing The Redd, an effort in inner Southeast Portland's former produce district designed to support local food enterprises, said that Portland is a city of innovators and, as with the urban growth boundary in the '80s, is still experimenting with ideas to provide services to make food more accessible and sustainable.

"The Redd is not about the food scene, it's about the food system," she said of what is envisioned as a working hub for the regional food system.

It's an idea that Severson echoed in our interview as a distinguishing characteristic of the city.

"The ability to make things happen in this city, foodwise, the potential [that] if you have an idea you can probably make it happen, is exciting," she said, attributing it to both the city's size and its culture.

"There’s not a lot of people who say no here," Severson mused. "It’s a function of size, of culture and people who are, like, 'Huh, you wanna like have a chicken-powered ancient grain mill and coffee shop? That could be cool.'"

One thing that surprised her, in a city so well known for its food culture, is that there is no food council here to direct, support and develop food policy for Portland, Multnomah County or the metro region. [The now-defunct Portland/Multnomah Food Policy Council served as a citizen-based advisory board to the City of Portland and Multnomah County from 2002-2012 and was dissolved in 2012 due to "lacking relevancy."]

As to the future, Severson seemed of two minds about where the Northwest is headed. "You certainly saw Berkeley get very popular, [but] San Francisco and Northern California cuisine is very hidebound," she said of larger West Coast cities known for innovation in the past but hampered by stagnation and the cost of doing business there. "Maybe Portland can do it differently."

Read the first installment in this series: Post-Election Pondering.

Top photo from The New York Times: (l to r) Josh McFadden, Kanth Gopalpur, Kim Severson, Amanda Oborne, Piper Davis.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Stave Off Chilly Weather with Beef Stew

One of the original reasons for starting this blog was to save recipes I'd made (and liked) and to have an easy way to look them up. Well, after ten-plus years and nearly 450 recipes later, I've got quite the stash!

Still, sometimes I'll go to search for a particular favorite just to make sure I've got all the ingredients I need for dinner that night and…oops…I'll realize that I never posted it here. So then I go to my old recipe box (left) and hope against hope that at some point in the pre-digital past—you know, like when dinosaurs roamed the earth and people still argued over who was the guy in that movie—I had scribbled it on a 3" by 5" card and filed it under the correct category. Or if that doesn't reveal my prey, then it's searching online to find a recipe that'll approximate what I'm looking for, always a risky proposition.

Luckily, in the case of my favorite beef stew recipe, the card was in the box and was even filed under "Fish and Meats," just behind artichoke chicken casserole and in front of smoked salmon pasta. Originally a women's magazine recipe that my mother tore out of a Better Homes and Gardens circa 1976 (yes, that's noted on the file card, too), I'd copied it down in case I needed a big, meaty, company's-coming dish to haul out for a special occasion.

She'd made it many times for just such eventualities, whether a church supper or to impress a business associate that my father was bringing home, one of those hearty one-dish dinners that would always be a guaranteed rave-inducer. See why I wanted to find it? And now that it's here, I'm hoping you'll find it as satisfying and useful as my mother did, and I always do.

Mom's Beef Stew

4 lbs. chuck roast, cut in 1" pieces
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
3/4 c. flour
1 Tbsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. dried thyme or tarragon
1 large onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 1/2 c. carrots, sliced into rounds
2 1/2 c. dry red wine
3 bay leaves
1 tsp. each thyme and basil
3 medium potatoes, sliced into 3/4" or so cubes (other root vegetables work great, too)
Salt to taste

In paper bag or gallon zip-lock plastic bag, place flour, salt, pepper and teaspoon of herbs. Shake to combine.

Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. While oil heats, add beef cubes, eight or so at a time, to the flour mixture in the bag and shake to coat them. When the oil shimmers, add the coated beef cubes to the pot, adding more floured cubes and browning them. Make sure you don't crowd the beef, though, or you'll end up steaming them in juice rather than browning them. As they brown, remove them from the pot to a platter, and add more floured beef cubes to the pot.

When all the beef has been browned and has been removed to the platter, add the onions and garlic to the pot, scraping up the browned bits of flour from the bottom as the vegetables sauté. When they're tender, add the meat back to the pot along with the carrots, wine, bay leaves and herbs. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for one hour. At that point, if it seems too dry, add another half-cup or so of wine. Add cubed potatoes to the pot and continue simmering for an additional hour or more until the beef is completely tender.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Oregon's Czarnecki Family: Four Generations of Mushroom Hunters

"My best memories growing up were foraging with the whole family, making a day of it," says Chris. "For us it’s always been about more than just putting food on the table. It’s getting out in the woods, being with nature."

The video above and the story that accompanies it, by writer Kerry Newberry for Travel Oregon, celebrates one of my favorite Oregon families, the Czarneckis. Jack (left), the patriarch of the clan, introduced me to mushroom foraging years ago, and I still relish a call to head up to Mt. Hood or over to the coast range to spend the day with this tireless man who sprints up and down Oregon's steep, forested hillsides like a deer.

Read more about my foraging adventures with him.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Future of Our Food: Post-Election Pondering

It seems like almost everyone, from pollsters to pundits to journalists to voters and non-voters alike, was taken by surprise by the results of this week's election. For myself, I'm still trying to get my brain to form synapses that connect a reality TV celebrity, accused sexual predator, racist and President-elect of the United States into a coherent whole. So far it eludes me.

How it's all going to shake out, well, that's the big question, isn't it?

Farmer supporting ban on GMO crops in Jackson Co.

Given that the Republican party habitually takes a hard right in the direction of industry, and with both houses of Congress and the White House in Republican hands, it stands to reason that a Trump administration will be pretty industry-heavy. Including in the food and agriculture sectors, where, according to an article in the magazine Modern Farmer, his list of 65 agriculture advisors is "a who’s who of industrial agriculture advocates, including senators, governors, state ag commissioners and agribusiness executives," going on to point out that "it’s safe to say that the Trump ag team supports feedlots over farmers' markets."

Concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO).

So I've decided to put together my own list of "advisors" and ask them what we can expect going forward under this new administration and what, if anything, we need to be doing about it. What are the major issues? Who should we be paying attention to? What questions should we be asking?

The series will be called, as it is above, The Future of Our Food, and it'll start with a report on a recent New York Times LookWest panel I attended before the election titled, coincidentally, "The Future of Food in Portland" moderated by New York Times staff food writer Kim Severson. Other installments over the next few months will include interviews with farmers, food activists, plant breeders and policy wonks to try to get a handle on this seismic shift in our food landscape.

Read the second installment in this series: New York Times Looks West.

Monday, November 07, 2016

A Pot of Soup Will Carry Us Through

I don't know about you, but when I get stressed I crave comfort. And believe me, this election has me more than a little freaked out. Without getting all screamy about the politics of the race or the possibility that we could have a madman in the White House with the nuclear codes…um…uh…okay, stay on track…I'm planning on being glued to the coverage on election night with a big pot of soup on the stove and lots of Dave's awesome homemade sourdough on hand for sopping.

A musquée de Provence squash is made for soup.

Hey, it beats curling up in a ball in bed with the covers over my head and pretending it's all been a bad dream, right?

Truthfully, I'm looking forward to shouting and screaming and jumping up and down when the country votes to elect our first woman president. But since we still need to eat, here's a recipe for a curried squash soup that will calm and comfort, especially if you have a big loaf of artisan bread standing by for some sopping.

Election Night Curried Squash Soup

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 onion, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp.-1 Tbsp. harissa, depending on your heat tolerance, or 1/8 tsp. cayenne
1 13 1/2 oz. can coconut milk
2-4 c. water or chicken or vegetable stock (or a combination of the two)
4 c. roasted squash, cut in 1" cubes
1 kaffir lime leaf (optional)
Zest of 1/2 lime
Juice of 1/2 lime

In a large soup pot, heat oil until it shimmers. Add onion and sauté over medium heat until tender. Add garlic and heat until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add curry powder and sauté for 1 minute. Add harissa, coconut milk, water and/or stock, squash, lime leaf, lime zest and juice. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove lime leaf and discard. Purée with immersion blender until smooth. (This can also be done in batches in a blender or food processor, but cool it slightly first or it'll explode all over the kitchen.)

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Farm Bulletin: The Ave Bruma Project

As a casual consumer, I go to the farmers' market or the store with my grocery list in hand, picking out the most appealing representatives to take home for my table. It doesn't occur to me that the fruits, vegetables and grains I'm packing in my basket were painstakingly developed over years, even decades, of careful breeding and maintenance. Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm is in the midst of such an endeavor with a variety of winter melon and, thirteen years after first planting them and three years after reviving his efforts, is just beginning to get results he's happy with.

In 2003 we planted some storage melons, variously referred to as winter, Christmas or Valencia melons. They have a hard, dark green, corrugated rind with yellow-green to pink flesh. They are true melons and not related to the Asian wax gourd, confusingly called a winter melon as well. This sort of melon is grown in Spain where they have long been an export crop, and southern Italy where they are stored hanging under the eaves. Last February, Sarah Minnick of Lovely's 50/50 sent us a photo of these melons stylishly hanging under the eaves of a fruit stall in Naples.

Winter melon display in Naples.

It is an old and patient style of melon that has been nudged aside for no good reason. They made an early appearance in America; President Thomas Jefferson grew them in his garden. As Fearing Burr noted in The Field and Garden Vegetables of America (1865), the Green Valencia melon is "…upon the whole, if fully ripened, a more desirable melon than many summer varieties." We concur, and more welcome given the season. The flavor of the melon improves in storage just like the best of the winter squash. Akin to winter squash, think of melons as living tropical plants and refrigeration as the fastest way to kill them. Storage at room temperature with good air circulation is perfect.

We sold winter melons at the Thanksgiving market that year. At the time field area and storage space on the farm were severely constrained as we were increasing our plantings of corn and beans, so the next year we dropped them from our crop list as an unnecessary distraction. Years later, people were still asking after those melons, leaving them lingering on the maybe-to-do-sometime list.

The new harvest shed gave us the storage space needed and we decided to try the melons again in 2013. As we looked at the maturing melons and later as we tasted them, it was clear that over the decade the seed quality had dropped precipitously. There were many smooth or light green off types, a large number of fruits split in the field, the flavor and texture was all over the map, some verging towards a mediocre cucumber in flavor or grainy in texture, and most of the fruits rotted before Thanksgiving. Basically a stinking disaster, which is what happens when seed companies forget the crop is a living organism that needs care and maintenance of its traits; just because a fruit makes seeds does not mean they are worth planting. Fortunately a handful of fruits were as we remembered so happily.

The approved melon seeds.

Using seeds from those fruits, we planted the melons again in 2014 and resolved to fix the problems. Our design brief for the project was simple. We wanted dense, mostly round and very dark green fruits with a hard wrinkled skin. The fruits should store in good condition for at least three months, ideally beyond the Winter Solstice, our brumal target, and have substantial flavor. That autumn, Sam Smith and the staff of Ava Gene's visited the farm and they tasted a sample of a really good specimen. Sam wanted the melon in the restaurant and made inquiries with impressive persistence. Thinking about it, we decided that sitting down and sampling 70 or so melons that didn't rot and then composting the remains seemed a bit of a tall task and a waste to boot. As the solstice approached and the first part of the rigorous selection protocol was finished, I emailed Sam:

"Here is my proposition. I will deliver all of the melons I have to you gratis. I would like you and your staff to separate out the seed of the melons you would want to buy next year, each fruit's seed in a separate bag. I am focusing on flavor and texture, and they don't all have to be the same, just really good. All you have to do is rinse the seeds, pat dry and put in the refrigerator; Carol and I will finish the drying here. Some of the melons may be fine, but not great enough to want to buy next year, and those seeds can be tossed. Use the flesh for a melon granita or cocktail, but leave nothing for posterity. This would be a great help and add to the story of what we end up with. If you are interested, I will drop them off next week."

Sam and his staff embraced the idea of this partnership. After Christmas, we collected the seed they selected, along with tasting notes. Just six melons, less than 10% of those we delivered, met the threshold in terms of flavor. Three more lots were from the fruits we set aside for our own consumption, so we had seed from nine fruits in all after starting with 150.

The children's melon.

In the spring of 2015, we started melons using an equal number of seeds from each fruit, assuring the population in the field included progeny from all of the selected fruits, no morsel of deliciousness overlooked or underrepresented. There was a dramatic improvement in storage life, but still a bit too much noise in the flavor profile. We reprised the Ava Gene's grand giveaway last winter, with 22 fruits deemed good, and six noted as exceptional. On a snowy January 4th with two grandchildren underfoot because of a cancelled flight, we opened one of the last fruits as a diversionary treat and it was still perfect. It went into the grex as the "children's melon." This year, Sam, now at Tusk, will have to buy his melons. However, we are very grateful for the assistance the staff at Ava Gene's provided.

As we noted, seed producers need to select for good traits, and against undesirable mutations or reversions to the wild type. For example, wild members of the family split open at maturity to shed their seeds, and their flesh is fibrous, bitter and often toxic. Like other cultivated plants, the melon is selected from plants where these traits are unexpressed, but they remain in the genome. We call our breeding efforts "projects" to remind us that the work is ongoing, and roguing out poor quality fruits is essential to the seed production endeavor.

As you taste the fruits bear in mind this is a work in progress. It will probably take another four years before we have all the traits close to where we want them. We could wait until we are certain of perfection, however we need to generate some cash flow in order to justify continuing the effort. If you buy a less than sublime fruit, we hope you will think of it as help in funding a worthy project. Oh yes, the project's name Ave Bruma is Latin for "behold the winter solstice," the brumal target we set.

Photo of winter melons in Naples by Sarah Minnick of Lovely's Fifty Fifty. Other photos by Anthony Boutard.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Grate Your Winter Squash!

Being a winter squash fan myself, I can't get enough of these thick-skinned beauties when they begin appearing in the farmers' markets. The ubiquitous Hubbard and acorn squashes are okay, I guess, but I like to wait for the giant Sibley to turn from blue to peach as it cures, or admire the sculptural bronze beauty of a Musquée de Provence. Even a warty Marina di Chioggia, with its bumpy blue-green skin, makes a stunning centerpiece until its time to serve it. This week Jim Dixon of Real Good Food gives some suggestions for doing just that.

Grating winter squash is such a good way to take advantage of the abundance of squashes available in stores and at the farmers' markets right now. While smaller, thin-skinned squash like Delicatas can be cleaned, sliced and cooked without peeling, the bigger, pumpkin-y squashes require a bit more processing. These Cucurbita maxima (usually, but not always, the big ones; Delicatas and similar are C. pepo) need to be split with a big knife, cleaned of the seeds (save for roasting) and cut into manageable pieces. Even a smallish, three-to-four-pound squash gives you enough for a couple of meals.

So after you roast a few slices and make something like winter squash caponata, you'll probably have raw squash left over. Time to grate. While you can use a box grater, a food processor works much better. Besides being fast, the grating disk gives nice, uniform shreds. Try cooking a handful in hot olive oil until they get a little brown and eating with just good salt. I use it raw to make a celery root and squash remoulade; mixed with potatoes (or by itself), grated winter squash makes a great latke. And there's always fritters. You can freeze the grated raw squash, too.

Winter Squash and Cabbage with Walnuts

I've made this using cubes of winter squash (cut about 1/2 inch, cook in oil until brown and slightly tender), but I like it better like this. To get started toast a handful of walnuts, chop coarsely, and set aside.

Cook a couple of cups of grated winter squash and a good pinch of salt in fairly hot olive oil until it starts to brown. Add a sliced red onion and a couple cloves of chopped garlic, cook until it softens, then add about a quarter head of chopped green cabbage. Sage and squash are a classic combination, so add 6-8 fresh sage leaves that you've chopped. When the vegetables are tender, remove the pan from the heat and stir in a tablespoon or two of Katz Trio red wine vinegar, the walnuts, and about 3 tablespoons of grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Grind some black pepper over it, too.

You can eat this as a vegetable side or toss it with some shaped pasta.