Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Party Favor: Crab and Artichoke Dip


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

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

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

Hot Artichoke and Crab Dip
Adapted from New Seasons Market

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

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

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

Squash Chronicles: Spaghetti Squash Cacio e Pepe



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

Tim Wastell showing proper squash butchery technique.

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

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

Find more squash recipes here.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Farm Bulletin: Oregon’s Aci Sivri Cayennes


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

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

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

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

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

Tomatillos in their husks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more on the controversy over the heirloom label.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Food Heroes: Matthew Dillon, Seed Guy


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

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

Mount Michael Benedictine School.

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

The monks also had a three-acre organic farm.

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

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

Then his father got sick. Cancer.

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

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

Platte River Valley in Nebraska.

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

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

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

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

Touring a field study for the OSA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

At Wild Garden Seed in Philomath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clif Bar Seed Matters initiative.

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

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

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

In the field.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Dillon at Wild Garden Seed by Shawn Linehan.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

A Community Kitchen That Will Build Community



Stacey Givens has a vision for her community of a place where people of all ages, from all walks of life, and from every corner of our city can gather and share their stories through the food they grow and make.

She started The Side Yard Farm in 2009 on a couple of lots in the downtrodden Cully neighborhood for just that purpose. A short summary of its work would include providing 20 local restaurants with organic local produce, giving space to schools to teach kids about farm to table, offering the farm's outdoor dining area to beginning pop-up chefs trying to get their foot in the door, donating large amounts of produce to organizations, providing space for instructors to teach classes, and hosting The Lost Table, a grief group for those who've lost loved ones. This year Givens' "Welcome Refugees" supper series benefited refugees here in Portland and gave attendees a chance to hear their stories.

"The Side Yard has become family to many chefs, artisans, instructors, kiddos, beginning farmers, aspiring chefs, grief group folks and people from all over that world who are interested in learning more about the seed to plate movement," Givens said.

And she's not stopping there.

To celebrate the farm's 10th year in business, Givens is planning to expand to build a Community Supported Kitchen (CSK) in her neighborhood. With a $175,000 price tag to build out a new kitchen space in the former Delphina's Bakery on Northeast 42nd Avenue, she's asking for help with a Kickstarter campaign (video above) dedicated to purchasing equipment for the new kitchen.

"We have been searching for a suitable kitchen for more than 5 years to allow growth in a shared space with other like-minded culinary entrepreneurs," Givens said. "When we heard that a spot was opening up right down the street from the farm, we grew excited about the possibility of building deeper connections through education and visibility of hyperlocal farming and sourcing. The CSK will exist to provide other local businesses with a holistic model that prioritizes the flow of local produce from the farm to the kitchen to the consumer."

As of today, Givens is almost halfway to that goal with slightly more than $22,000 raised. But she'll get none of it if you don't chip in to help before the deadline of December 22nd. Please consider doing so!

Go to The Side Yarm Farm Community Supported Kitchen page on Kickstarter for more information and to donate.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Caponata with a Twist: Winter Squash!


'Tis the season for all kinds of squash-y deliciousness, and contributor Jim Dixon of Real Good Food has a great idea for a vegetarian main dish.

Using winter squash instead of eggplant for this Sicilian classic wasn't my idea, but it's a really good one. I've written before about my preference for the big, pumpkin-y Cucurbit varieties, and since they provide a lot of squash to eat, I'm always looking for another way to use them. But you can make this with any good winter squash. You'll want about three cups of cut up squash.

Cut the squash into roughly 3/4-inch chunks (if you have any leftover roasted squash, cut it into bite-sized pieces and add after cooking the other vegetables). Toss it into a skillet slicked with extra virgin olive oil and cook over medium heat. Chop and toss in a red onion, a couple of celery stalks, 2-3 cloves of garlic, a good handful of green olives, and a couple of tablespoons of whole capers. Add a good pinch of salt, too.

When the squash is tender (maybe 15 minutes), add a splash (2 tablespoons or so) of Katz Trio red wine vinegar, a healthy squirt of Three Brothers cane syrup (or a couple of tablespoons of sugar or honey), and about 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. Cook for another 5 minutes to let the flavors blend, then sprinkle with a few pinches of oregano. Drizzle with more extra virgin on the plate.

You can eat this warm as vegetable side, but I like it best at room temperature with good bread.