Monday, March 20, 2017

Eating of the Green(s)

With the vernal equinox upon us, called Nowruz ("new day") in the Persian calendar and considered the first day of spring in the New World, I've been jonesing for fresh, green things—think nettles, fiddleheads and other early foraged greens. Fortunately for me, contributor Jim Dixon of Real Good Food has had exactly the same thoughts, and he shared a recipe I'm going to be putting on our table soon.

While the faux Irish celebration of green beer and corned beef has passed, colcannon should be in regular rotation on your dinner table.

Santo Patricio's Colcannon

This an Italian-Irish version of the Irish classic. You can harvest nettles right now (almost anywhere along any river west of the Cascades, but Sauvie Island is a good place to start) or look for them at the farmers' market.

Cook a couple of sliced leeks in olive oil with a good pinch of salt for a few minutes, then add three peeled yellow potatoes cut into rough cubes about 3/4 inch thick. Cook for about 10 minutes, letting the spuds brown just a bit, then add 1/2 cup heavy cream. Cover, reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

While the potatoes are cooking, drop a bunch of stinging nettles into boiling water. Pull the greens out with tongs after about 30 seconds (heat neutralizes the chemical sting), drain, let cool, and finely chop about 2 cups. Save the rest (and the nettle broth) for another use, maybe fritters.

When the potatoes are done, stir in the nettles. Season with freshly ground black pepper, and check the salt. Cook for a minute or two, then serve hot drizzled with a little more extra virgin.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Why I'm Quitting Tillamook Cheese

"As Oregonian as a lumberjack sharing a craft beer with a beaver, no one does cheese like Tillamook." - New Seasons sale flyer

Their packaging says "Thank you for buying Tillamook and keeping our family farms strong."

Since childhood I've been a fan of Tillamook cheese. Molten and gooey inside grilled cheese sandwiches, grated into mac and cheese and melted over just about anything you can think of, its bright orange hue has been a color theme weaving through my life. On trips to the coast my parents would stop the station wagon at the cheese factory to follow the steps that the milk took from liquid to curd to sliced chunks which were finally pressed into logs, aged and dipped in wax (now wrapped in plastic) to be displayed on refrigerated shelves.

"Keeping our family farms strong."

On those same trips my parents would point out the cows munching grass in the brilliant green coastal pastures of Tillamook County, their pendulous udders swaying as they moved to the barns to be milked twice a day. "That's where our cheese comes from!" we'd think.

That's why it is with a heavy heart that I've finally decided to give up Tillamook cheese. It's not because the flavor has somehow fallen off of a cliff, or that I've discovered a better product—their extra sharp white cheddar had become our house cheese after my husband developed an intolerance to lactose. (Lactose is converted to lactic acid by cultures added to the cheese, and the longer it's aged, the less lactose remains.)

So why have I reached this decision?

Tillamook's Columbia River Processing plant in Boardman.

It turns out that only a portion of the milk that is used by the Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA)* to make their famous cheeses is produced by those cows munching that rich, coastal grass. Instead, Tillamook has partnered with Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman on the Columbia River, a factory farm that produces around 2 million pounds (that's 233,000 gallons, folks) of milk per day from 30,000 milk cows kept during the entirety of their short lives in confined barns. Add to that another 40,000 animals consisting of calves and "replacement heifers," young females that will be added to the milking herd at two years old.

As for the amount of milk produced in Tillamook County itself, a report from 2014 titled "Tillamook County Community Food Assessment: Growing Healthy Communities on the North Oregon Coast" noted that at that time "the cooperative…gets more than half its milk from outside Tillamook County and does a portion [of its] other cheese making and distribution from Boardman, Oregon."

Dairy cow standing in waste water at Threemile Canyon Farms.

An article in the Tillamook Headlight Herald from 2012, announcing layoffs of 50 employees doing packaging at the Tillamook processing facility—outsourced to companies in Utah and Idaho—quoted then-TCCA CEO Joe Rocha as saying that "all ice cream is made in Tillamook. Other Tillamook brand products, such as yogurt, butter and sour cream, are licensed products produced by other companies. All local milk is processed in Tillamook."

Tillamook has also built a large cheese processing facility, Columbia River Processing, near Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman that was designed to produce 58 million pounds of cheese a year at full operation. In 2014 it built a 64,000-square-foot expansion project to process whey, which is used in products like infant formula, performance nutrition products and products that "help manage some of the impacts of aging."

Open, manure-filled dairy lagoon is roughly 20 acres in size.

According to an article in the East Oregonian, the system is a "closed loop" where the milk cows "are loaded onto slowly rotating carousels where their udders are sprayed with a disinfectant and attached to automatic pumps. Each spin lasts just a few minutes before the cows are unloaded back where they started." The rest of the loop is made of the waste from the 70,000 animals—estimates are around 436 million gallons of liquid manure every year—that go into digesters and open lagoons that is then spread on fields of grain corn and triticale which is used to feed the cows or is made into animal bedding.

The manure spread on the fields is supposed to be carefully managed to avoid having the runoff pollute area groundwater, but an article on another proposed mega-dairy in the area, Lost Valley Ranch, reports that it would add an additional 30,000 dairy cows and their waste to the already beleaguered groundwater system in the county. "The area is home to the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area, where the level of nitrates in the groundwater already exceeds the federal safe drinking water standard," the article notes.

Treated manure is sprayed directly on organic crops.

There are also concerns about air pollution, and groups like the Center for Food Safety, Friends of Family Farmers and the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project are pushing for new rules to regulate air contaminant emissions (SB197) from large dairy operations. In 2007, Oregon exempted large-scale livestock operations from air-quality oversight, even though elevated concentrations of ammonia from Threemile Canyon Farms have been linked to acid deposits in the Columbia River Gorge, and nitrogen compounds are contributing to elevated levels of ozone in the vicinity of these operations.

The nail in the coffin was driven in, for me, when I started to look into what these mega-dairies were doing to Oregon's small, family-owned dairy farms. As Jon Bansen, a third-generation dairyman who is hoping to someday turn his farm over to his son, wrote in an editorial in the Salem Statesman-Journal, "when the last mega-dairy, Threemile Canyon Farms, came into Oregon, an average of nine family dairy farms went out of business per month between 2002 and 2007. Mega-dairies flood the market with milk, driving down milk prices and making it increasingly difficult for family farmers to stay afloat."

Each barn (in white) is roughly a quarter-mile long.

Mega-dairies also degrade the lives of local communities. Bansen goes on to say that "the ways in which family dairy farmers and mega-dairies contribute to a community are drastically different. When something breaks, family farmers typically buy parts from the local store. When their animals need veterinary attention, they call the local vet. They support their feed stores, tractor-supply stores and more. After a hard day on the farm, family farmers often engage in their community, schools, civic groups and churches." Employees at mega-dairies have neither the time nor the money to spend in their communities; equipment is bought from the cheapest (mostly non-local) sources; and profits are sent off to corporate, often out-of-state, offices.

So for all of these reasons I'm looking for a new, delicious source for my cheese, and I'll try to buy from small cheesemakers who source their milk from small, family farms. It'll no doubt be more expensive than the cheap-for-a-reason stuff, but I'm willing to spend a little more and use a little less if it helps to support local families and communities.

The Tillamook slogan is "Dairy Done Right." I disagree. How about you?

* I contacted the Tillamook County Creamery Association Consumer Relations department and was told they could not comment on the facts referenced in this post because "production numbers like the kind you are seeking are not figures that we generally share with the public."

Photos of cow barn and manure lagoon from Friends of Family Farmers. Photo of sprinklers from Threemile Canyon Farms website. Aerial photo from Google maps.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Future of Our Food: Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley on GMOs, Climate Change and Citizen Action

This series interviews farmers, food activists, politicians 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.

Elected to represent Oregon in the United States Senate in 2008, Jeff Merkley replaced conservative Republican Senator Gordon Smith in a hard-fought battle for the state's junior seat. The son of a millwright, he was born in the timber town of Myrtle Creek, Oregon, and was the first in his family to attend college, graduating with an undergraduate degree in International Relations from Stanford and a graduate degree in Public Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. After college Merkley worked as a national security analyst at the Pentagon and at the Congressional Budget Office, then returned to Oregon in 1991 to take a position as the executive director of Portland Habitat for Humanity. His work to provide housing for Oregonians led him to consider running for office, and he was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 1998, eventually becoming Speaker of the House. In his life outside of politics, he enjoys hiking and recently completed an IronMan event with his daughter. Impressive!

What are the critical issues affecting agriculture and our food system a) here in the Northwest and b) in the country as a whole?

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) labeling and climate change.

GMO labeling gives consumers easy access to the information they need to make informed food purchasing decisions. There are Federal requirements for disclosing whether fish is farm-raised or wild-caught, or whether juice is from concentrate or fresh squeezed; the same should be true for genetically modified ingredients. After all, 64 other countries—including China—allow their consumers to know whether products contain GMOs.

I have been deeply immersed in this issue, and last year introduced the Biotechnology Food Labeling Uniformity Act, which would deliver a 50-state solution instead of a potentially complicated patchwork of GMO labeling laws. Major food companies like Campbell’s, General Mills, and Mars have listened to the nine out of 10 American who agree that GMOs should be labeled, and have taken steps to voluntarily disclose this information on their products. These companies are demonstrating that it is possible to give consumers the information they want without raising costs at the grocery store.

As a ranking member on the Agriculture and Rural Development Appropriations subcommittee, I’ve been advocating for consumers, and organic and small farms; traditional “big” crops like corn and soybeans are already well represented by lobbyists. I will continue to advocate for Oregon’s specific agricultural needs and consumers’ right to know what’s in their food.

The devastating effects of climate change are already being felt by food systems here in Oregon—baby oysters are dying as the ocean becomes more acidic; wildfire season is longer and more intense; prolonged drought is crippling farms and ranches. And yet we have a president who believes climate change is a hoax, and an Environmental Protection Agency chief who doesn’t think humans have contributed to global warming.

Since we can’t count on the current administration to act on climate, in the coming months I’ll introduce a “100-by-50” bill to achieve 100 percent clean and renewable energy by 2050. The would provide a roadmap to clean the electric grid, electrify transportation, and promote investments in new technologies to end the use of polluting fossil fuels.

The “100-by-50” framework is something every group or organization can sign onto: Commit to operating on 100 percent clean and renewable energy by 2050, and develop a framework for how you’ll get there incrementally. Every garden club, cooking class, and family can contribute to reducing carbon emissions and curbing the effects of climate change on our food systems.

What do we as citizens need to be paying attention to? What are the best sources for information on the issues?

There is a constant barrage of misinformation coming from the current administration. I suggest you identify a favorite traditional news source—one whose information is vetted and verified—to stay informed. Find an issue that you’re passionate about and get involved.

In your opinion, what’s the most effective action citizens can take in the short term? In the long term?

The grassroots uprising by ordinary Americans has had a real effect on Congress. As we go forward, the impact of citizen action is directly proportional to the amount of individual effort it takes. If you sign a petition or send a form e-mail, you’ll help spread the message. By making a phone call or writing a personal e-mail, your message will be a little louder. The biggest impact is showing up—to town halls, to rallies, to demonstrations. Seeing hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of people coalesce around an issue effectively sends a message.

Read the other posts in this series.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Cooking Myself Out of a Corner with Julie Sahni

I often get myself into situations where I need to cook myself out of a corner. For instance, this past week I wanted to make some hummus from a recipe my mother collected when she was in Liberia, on the West Coast of Africa (read the post and it'll all become clear). Grabbing a pound of dried chickpeas from Ayers Creek Farm that had been lounging in the cupboard, waiting for just such an occasion, I threw them in a pot of water to soak overnight.

The next day I poured off the soaking water, covered them afresh and set them on the stove to simmer for 90 minutes or so. When they were just toothy to the bite, I rinsed them again and measured out the two cups I needed for the hummus. Which left about four cups of cooked chickpeas staring at me from the strainer.

Chickpeas are the cornerstone of many dishes in India, and I'd been perusing my copy of Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking since making a fantastic chicken tikka masala a few days ago. Using the last of my stash of ground meat from the whole lamb I bought from Jo-Le Farms—such deliciousness—and what I could dig out of the vegetable bin in the fridge, I was able to pull together a crazy good dinner in a little over an hour.

Oh, and when Dave walked in the door from work that evening? His expression and the phrase "Wow! What smells so good?" was all I needed to know that I had a hit on my hands.

Ground Lamb in Cashew Nut Sauce with Chickpeas
Adapted from Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking

4 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 c. onions, chopped fine
2 tsp. garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. ginger root, peeled and grated
1 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
2 bay leaves
2 lbs. ground lamb
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 1/2 c. roasted tomatoes or canned, crushed tomatoes
3 Tbsp. cashew nut butter or 4 Tbsp. ground roasted cashews
2 c. cooked chickpeas with 1/2 c. liquid (or water)
2 tsp. garam masala
Cilantro, chopped fine, for garnish

Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven or deep skillet. When it shimmers, add onions. Cook, stirring constantly, until they turn a caramel brown (about 20-25 min.). Add garlic and ginger and sauté for 2 min. Add cumin, coriander, turmeric, red pepper and bay leaves. Stir briefly, then add ground lamb and brown it, breaking it up with a spoon. When the meat has lost its pink color, add salt, tomatoes, nut butter and chickpeas with 1/2 c. liquid. Add another 1/2 c. of hot water and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes until the sauce has thickened. Stir occasionally to keep it from sticking. Turn off the heat and stir in the garam masala. Add salt to taste, if needed. Garnish with chopped cilantro, if desired.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Farm Bulletin: A Crack in the Wall of Winter

Whenever there is a lag in the reports from the fair fields of Gaston and my mailbox is barren of the cadences of contributor Anthony Boutard's missives from Ayers Creek Farm, the colors of my world are a little less vibrant, the sounds a little muffled and slow. So when I saw his report in my inbox, suddenly I was seeing the intense dark reds of his beloved Arch Cape chicories and the deep, dark richness of the soil of the Wapato Valley.

Tuesday afternoon, there appeared a crack in the wall of winter and our chance to fill orders. We grabbed the harvest knives and buckets, and set to work collecting the Arch Cape chicories. The meadowlarks were singing as they foraged in the cornstalks nearby and a pair of hawks were circling the cold field seeking a thermal, wistfully early but no harm in trying. A reminder that, yes, the sun will return. 

Arch Cape chicories are descended from the late chicories of Treviso, Italy. During their late winter season, piles of these red and white late chicories are stacked in the markets of Venice and elsewhere in the region. Grown by a collective of growers in the vicinity of Treviso, it is a regionally protected variety, similar to Walla Walla or Vidalia onions. The growers of Treviso maintain their own seed stocks to assure quality and uniformity and, because just the top is harvested before setting seed, the variety remains effectively proprietary. As we have noted previously, the commercially available seed for the variety is poorly maintained and has been contaminated by other chicory varieties. Frustrated by the low quality of commercial seed, several years ago we embarked on a project to draw out from the problematic seed the qualities we desired. It is going well.

We could probably call these chicories Late Treviso and no one would bust us. However, leaving aside the question of the ground they are grown in, for better or worse Gaston is very definitely not Treviso. More importantly the population we have is very different from those grown in the Veneto. The appropriate long name for Arch Cape would be "Variations on the Theme of the Late Treviso." Like a musical variation, such as Beethoven's 12 Variations on Handel's "See the Conqu'ring Hero Come" for piano and cello, we have approached the well-recognized and uniform Late Treviso in a relaxed and fun fashion. Look no further than the blades and you will see a chorus of reds including crimson, ruby, carmine, cerise, claret, burgundy, rose, fuchsia and ox-blood. Some of our heads have very narrow, strap-like blades and others expand into a spoon shape. Such playfulness is an anathema to the Treviso growers. We would be drummed out of the consortium and forbidden to use the name. Nonetheless, we carefully maintain the Late Treviso theme so that they are recognizable as kin, just as Handel's theme runs through Beethoven's variations.

Another important variation displayed in Arch Cape is that it is fully adapted to digital salad eaters like the Boutard family. When our Italian visitors were presented with the Arch Cape salad, they immediately went for their knives and forks and started whacking away at the long slender leaves. Reeling from the foliar carnage, we stopped them and explained that the only way to fully appreciate this beautiful salad green is to grasp the end with your thumb and forefinger and delicately work your way up the blade. It should be a contemplative exercise, relaxation after the main course, savoring the sheen of fine olive oil and vinegar. After all, no one in their right mind would eat an olive with a knife and fork. After a moment of confusion and resistance, all enjoyed the digital approach to salad eating.

Fortunately, when we started growing these chicories we were ignorant about the mystique and hype surrounding them. After a few years of growing them, a chef asked us how we produced such fine looking traditional late chicory. We told him we planted seed and then harvested from the field in February. He then recounted how the chicory farmers of Treviso dig the plants and put them in caves where warm, clear spring water flows at precisely 60°F (15°C), and stressed that this is the proper way to force them. We explained to him that we were impressed by our fellow farmers' efforts, but it seemed like a lot of work, guaranteed to double the price or more, and it wasn't really necessary and we didn't have caves like that in Gaston anyhow. We have now heard the romantic story about the limestone caves and the pure spring water many dozens of times and with various extravagant embellishments, always told as though it is essential to the enterprise, an exquisite purification rite. We were amused to see photos of the process provided by the Venetian tourism people. The process looks messier and muddier than we would like to tolerate, and hardly a beautiful cave with running spring water we will add. 

The soils of the Pacific Northwest are so wet in February that creating a muddy lagoon would hardly seem necessary, and we are sufficiently dark and gloomy so as to relieve us of the need for a covering shade cloth. Anyway, our selection efforts are devoted to regionalizing Arch Cape by freeing it of the need for a limestone cave, or a dingy hoop house and a muddy lagoon for that matter, amenities we clearly lack. Oh yes, and the knife and fork. Though we dearly wish we had a limestone cave with a spring running through it as a general matter. How fun it would be to eat dinner on a hot summers eve with our toes dangling in the cool waters from the depths.

You can find Anthony and his wife Carol's chicories at their farm store, 5219 SW Spring Hill Rd. in Gaston, OR, this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, Mar. 4th and 5th, from 3-5 pm. If you can't make it out to the farm, you can find these remarkable chicories at Rubinette Produce, 2340 NE Sandy Blvd.