Follow Your Food: Spring Latkes

Memorial Day is the unofficial marker of our transition from Spring into Summer. Now the sun rises early and sets late, giving plants longer hours of solar radiation for photosynthesis and metabolism. The increased photon energy provided by longer days allows for greater glucose sugar production. Naturally, as the plant makes more sugar, it must be allocated for storage. So, to keep up with energy production, the roots of certain species develop to accommodate the glut of glucose and store it as a carbohydrate. Over time this storage unit becomes a viable food crop, which we all enjoy in the form of a carrot or a beet. This trait to store increased energy is not ubiquitous among all species. Normally, it is either something represented in perennial plants, who must survive for a number of years or has been cultivated in annual plants from years of farming. Most plants would prefer to allocate available resources directly towards reproduction and setting a flower head. Eventually the fertilized flower develops into a fruiting body to provide life to a new generation, or to a hungry table. This requires an immense amount of energy, and if the plant has not met a critical mass of photosynthetic capacity, reproduction can stress a plant. So, it is critical that the season is right and the days are long to plant a fruiting crop. As Spring is to green, summer is to color; that color is derived by new growth in root and fruit crops. This week we saw an example the shape and color of early summer food with fresh Zucchini and Carrots.

Fortunately, for most, the introduction to summer is met with an extended weekend. I know how I will spend these long days ahead; sharing food and late afternoon memories with friends to grow our roots deeper.

This is an amended recipe to one I found online for some vegetable latkes (or fritters, whatever you prefer). I must say, this is an easy and delicious way to use seasonal produce, and nothing but seasonal produce. If you go online, there are a lot of iterations of this meal. I went with what worked best for the materials I had on hand. Find what works best for you. But here is a little kick to get you on your way…

Ingredients to serve 4 Latkes:

  • 2 small Zucchini, shredded (Groundwork Organics)
  • 3-4 medium Carrots, peeled and shredded (Organic Redneck)
  • 1 medium Potato, boiled and mashed (Rainshadow Organics)
  • 2 cloves of Garlic, minced (Groundwork Organics)
  • 1 Green Onion, chopped (Cinco Estrellas)
  • 1/4 tsp thyme (Sagestruck Herbary)
  • 1/4 cup whole wheat flour (Rainshadow Organics)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp paprika, or 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (or both!)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • pepper to taste
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp Half & Half

Cooking instructions:

  1. Begin by prepping your zucchini and carrots by shredding with a large-holed cheese grader. If you are like me and lack this piece of equipment, this can be done with some dextrous knife work. Transfer veggies to a collander, add the salt and mix. Allow to sit for 15 minutes or so.
  2. Add the potato to water and boil until soft all of the way through. This can be accomplished more quickly if the potato is quartered beforehand. Remove potato to a bowl, add the half & half and mash.
  3. Add the Flour and Baking powder to a separate bowl and mix.
  4. Squeeze the veggies dry, using either just your hands or a cheesecloth, and transfer to a bowl. Add the Garlic, Paprika, Cayenne and Thyme. Mix together. Now add the mashed up potato, mix. Lastly, add the flour/baking powder and mix.
  5. Once mixed, grab a medium sized handful and pack into a ball, repeat 3 times. Place the uncooked latkes on a baking sheet and refrigerate for 20-30 minutes so that they hold form better while cooking.
  6. Heat up 2 Tbsp of oil in a cast iron skillet over medium heat. When oil is shimmering, add the packed latkes. Cook for 3-5 minutes and turn. They should be slightly charred and crisp when flipped. Cook for another 3-5 minutes. Fin!

I did not have the ingredients at my disposal to make an adequate sauce for serving, but these would be amazing served with a yogurt based side. Perhaps yogurt, cucumber and lemon.

This was so easy, so good, and almost 100% local, that it may just become a staple in my diet.

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Follow Your Food: Artichoke Soup

Artichokes in Oregon? That doesn’t sound right, but indeed it is. These artichokes are grown just outside of Eugene at Groundwork Organics, and represent a minority category of American artichokes grown outside of Southern California. The U.S is the world’s 9th largest global producer of artichokes, behind Mediterranean states like Spain, Northern Egypt, and Italy. Just about 100% of domestically grown commercial artichokes come from America’s own Chaparral climate in California’s agrarian basins. 80% of that yield is found solely in Monterey County, one of the southernmost regions in the state. So, finding regional varieties here in Oregon is a rarity, and it represents the nuanced capacity of diversified small farms.

Despite my preconceptions, I just learned that artichokes are, in fact, incredibly healthy. They are packed with plant compounds that contribute to a number of medicinal benefits. First, they are very high in antioxidants, more than most any other plant. This is thanks to the presence of bioacive compounds lutolin and apigenin, which help prevent cellular oxidation from free radical molecules. It is good that artichokes are difficult to eat raw, because the bioavailability of these compounds actually increases as the plant tissue softens from cooking. A journal of medicine, the National Center for Biotechnology Information, published a reseach study that concluded that steaming artichokes increased the antioxidant capacity 15-fold, boiling increasing up to 8-fold. Now, I don’t know about you, but I want to eat something that gets better through cooking. Aside from antioxidants, artichokes are high in phenolic compounds, which are known to help lower bad cholesterol and help fight cancerous cell mutation. Its cultivation from wild thistle to a staple food crop was a project of the Greeks, Romans and Spanish Moors. Maybe this is why some of history’s grandest empires arose from the Mediterranean coast. All hail the Ceasar of superfood!

For those who have not roasted, baked or stewed their artichokes from this past week, here is a recipe to get you jump started. It has been a grey, rainy day, reminiscent of late fall. So, to combine the feeling of Fall with the palate of Spring, here is a recipe for a hearty Artichoke soup. This was pulled from an online food blog called Shutterbean, so I make not claim to be the originator, but I certainly did enjoy it! I will say, this recipe combined perfectly with some roasted carrots from Radicle Roots.

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs. artichoke hearts,  roughly chopped
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1⁄3 cup cornstarch
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tbsp. finely chopped parsley
  • 1 lemon, cut into 6 wedges
  • chopped parsley, for serving
  • warm sourdough bread, for serving

Cooking Instructions:

Working in batches, purée 2 cups artichoke hearts with 2 cups water in a blender. Transfer puréed artichokes to a 6-qt. pot with the butter, chicken broth, garlic, and salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer stirring occasionally, for 1 hour.

In a small jar or bowl, whisk together cornstarch with 1⁄2 cup cold water. Vigorously whisk cornstarch mixture and heavy cream into soup. Raise heat to medium-high and cook, whisking frequently, until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Strain soup through a mesh strainer into a clean pot over low heat; discard solids. Ladle soup into 6 bowls, garnish with parsley, and squeeze a lemon wedge over each. Serve with warm sourdough bread.

The recipe for the carrots is Moroccan Roasted Carrots with a Dukkah spice and yogurt sauce. The Moroccan Carrots require more complex ingredients than I traditionally aim for, so I pieced my Dukkah together with what I had available. Cook what works for you!

Ingredients

  • 8 Large Carrots, scrubbed (Radicle Roots)
  • 4 Tbs. olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed (Groundwork Organics)
  • 1 ½ tsp. sweet paprika
  • ½ tsp. cumin
  • ¼ tsp. hot paprika
  • ½ tsp salt

For the Dukkah

  • ¼ cup slivered almonds
  • 2 Tbsp. sunflower seeds
  • 1 tsp. sesame seeds
  • ½ tsp. mixed peppercorns (or just black pepper
  • ¼ tsp. fennel seeds
  • ¾ tsp coarse salt or Maldon salt

For the Yogurt Sauce

  • 1/3 cup plain greek yogurt, or plain whole milk yogurt (Flying Cow Dairy)
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp. finely chopped mint (Sagestruck herbary)
  • 1 ½ tsp. chopped dill
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 3-5 tsp. water (for consistency

For the carrots:

1. Pre-heat oven to 400˚ F

2. Place carrots, olive oil, garlic, spices, and salt in a roasting pan and toss until the carrots are coated well.

3. Roast for 45 minutes until soft in the middle and caramelized on the outside. Turn carrots halfway through roasting time.

For the dukkah:

1. Toast almonds on a sheet pan for 3-4 minutes. You can do this in the oven while the carrots are roasting. Keep an eye on them so that they don’t burn.

2. In a small pan over medium heat, toast the sunflower seeds for 1-2 minutes and set aside.

3. In that same pan over medium heat, toast the fennel seeds and peppercorns for about 30-45 seconds until fragrant. Set aside.

4. Do the same with the sesame seeds for 45 seconds. Set aside.

5. Using a pestle and mortar, first crush the fennel seeds and peppercorns. Add the almonds and crush into small pieces. Then add the sunflower seeds and crush again. Lastly mix in the salt and sesame seeds. This can be made ahead and stored in an air-tight container for up to 3 weeks.

For the yogurt sauce:

1. Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl. The sauce should be runny but not too watery. Add more water if too thick or more yogurt if too thin. Taste for seasoning.

Assembly:

You can keep the carrots in the roasting dish for a rustic look, or plate them on a serving dish. Drizzle the yogurt sauce over top, sprinkle with sumac (optional), and garnish with a good amount of dukkah. You can serve the extra yogurt sauce on the side.

I do feel like I have slighted you by not using my own pictures for this blog, as the images above are from the blog writers of “Shutterbean”, for the soup, and “I Will not East Oysters” for the carrots. Kudos to their hard work! I will try to get my own shots up later.

Nature: Friend and Adversary

Today is a pleasant rainy Sunday, which allows for time to slow down, read, reflect and catch up on built up chores. These calm showers provide just the sort of moisture to saturate annual row crops and helps ease the burden of irrigation for our regions farmers. However, while the weather is gentle today, there were some rather torrential periods yesterday. The thermometer is still bouncing between hot and cool, providing rather inconsistent range of air and soil temperatures; this also makes for variable forms of precipitation. Mixed in with Saturday’s precipitation were heavy bouts of hail, which as you can imagine, spells danger for vulnerable crops out in the field. During one such spell Story Hill Farm suffered a tragic loss of spring crops. Farmer Jack Bridges, and 20 others on a chicken coop tour, watched as cold chunks of hail pelted his lush vegetables. Lettuce, radishes, kale, onions, and anything else growing outside was at the whim of nature. Situations like these leave farmers feeling helpless to intervene. When the climate is cruel, there in only so much that can be done to fight it. While the damage may be done, plants often demonstrate their unabashed resilience in the wake of such an event. I have seen rows of corn and kale plowed down by heavy winds and rain, only to bounce back and continue with life when the sun reemerges from behind the clouds. Let us hope that Jack enjoys similar fortune in the wake of this storm; but, in any case this is a scary moment for any farmer and is a moment that all have endured.

Weather is the pivot around with all life hinges; it both provides life and takes it away. When climatic conditions are favorable, plants grow strong, water tables are full and human nutritional needs are met economically. When conditions shift unfavorably, plants suffer, wells are drained, yields diminish and we pay the price at the store. Rarely does a season pass without any sort of drought, flood or pest outbreak, so building resilience to these  events is constitutional to any farm economy. And we simply cannot accurately predict when those shocks will happen, nor can we anticipate how pests will adapt to conventional control. Since weather is fluid, adapting to climate patterns is an iterative process; never perfect, and always improving. Our developing passion for decentralized food markets is a part of this learning.

In the years since the Green Revolution of the 1950’s, large scale agrarian specialization has proven vulnerable to adapting to such shocks. Food systems catering to economies of scale often grow one crop variety over wide acreage. This allows for streamlined planting, cultivation and harvesting, from which consumers enjoy lower prices. But that price we enjoy is just a stagnant number at the store, and does not recognize the quieter costs we are paying. One such cost is vulnerability. While the price might be low in up front economic terms, it balances on a dangerous precipice of one storm cycle or pest outbreak from wiping out the majority of something like carrots in one region of the U.S. The price of all carrots then shifts, forcing us to then pay a scarcity price for what remains after the shock.

If you are of a business mind, think of our food system like your investment portfolio. If you just buy into  a high number of valuable shares, consolidated to one or two firms, then that investment stands vulnerable to much bigger losses when the firms suffer. Conversely, a diversified stock portfolio holds a balanced volume shares, spread horizontally across firms and vertically between businesses in the same industry. Much like diversified business investment, farmers invest in diversity to bolster security from variable weather conditions. But these are not stock and bond markets, these are farms. Farms produce food, and food is the second most basic component to fuel human life. Much hinges in how we invest in the sustainable security of our food system.

It is always sad to hear of losses in the fields. Thankfully our food portfolio is diversified here in Central Oregon, so we can continue eating spring radishes and lettuce without freighting it in from distant farms.

Follow Your Food: Radicle Roots

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon at Radicle Roots. As I had written in my recipe for Chicken Larb, Radicle Roots is a small, but very productive, sustainable market garden just outside of Sisters, OR. Radicle Roots is run by James Bernston, a first generation farmer from Snohomish, Washington. Farming is time and labor intensive work, even with a work force, and James does it all on his own, with help from his girlfriend Sydney when she is free from her Masters studies in Counseling. Due to the responsibilities of plant care, he operates at a small scale. As a market garden, James does his part to cultivate a variety of select crops for the Central Oregon Food system. Conscious of the capacity of his operation, James focuses on growing superb quality and cultivar diversity in his field beds. This care is reflected in the crops he brings to market; every head of lettuce and every bunch of radishes is a work of living art, full of color, crisp and fresh. He has to be selective about where he sells his food, so that his fields are not over harvested, and run dry. As such, he most often sells directly to his markets of choice, and has built relationships with restaurants and wholesalers around town. We are one of the proud partners of Radicle Roots, but you can also find his produce at the Bend Farmers Market over the summer, in Central Oregon Locavore’s store or on the menus of Drake, Jackson’s Corner and a number of other restaurants downtown.

 

Small Farms are a cornerstone of building economic diversity in our community, and a critical component of fostering a resilient food system. In any agronomy, at any scale, the key to sustainability is balance. Though small, Radicle Roots is an important piece in the balance of Central Oregon’s agricultural landscape. James’s operation is a testament to the productivity of a small, intensively attended plot of land. Since everything is hand cultivated, James is able to plant densely and maximize the marginal food yield from the land at his disposal. As the human population  grows, our demand for food grows with it; as that population builds its aggregate wealth over time, demand expands exponentially.

In the world of expanding humanity, the agronomy can grow in 2 ways. One is what has been come to known as the “conventional” model; large, specialized farms that focus specifically on producing for economies of scale. While these farms can provide food at an affordable price and over a broad range, is requires large inputs of water fertilizer and land to make these operation function. As we have begun to see, through the years, this leads to some inherent externalities as management is stretched over large acreage; to state it simply, we don’t have that land available. The second model offers a bit more systemic sustainability. This model I speak of is the smaller, diversified farm that has come to define the local food movement in America. These farms do not individually produce food at the scale capable in their larger counterparts, but when working together, they create a diverse network that contributes to the dietary needs of their direct community. Since their operations cater to a diminished scale, they require less infrastructure and as a result tend to be more flexible to the whims of nature. This flexibility also extends into the land they occupy. Since market gardens like Radicle Roots focus on intensive hand cultivation, they are capable of producing high marginal food yields in small places.

While we drive forward into a more crowded world, available farmland is dwindling, and food production has to find a way to adapt to the space that remains. James is a quiet member of the farmers adapting to such a world. His operation ingratiates itself into the neighborhood around him, providing more than just sustenance to his neighbors. In addition to his veggies, James offers his neighbors an opportunity to build their community by hosting greenhouse space for people to start gardens of their own. His presence there is that of balance; holding food production on one shoulder, land care on the other, and community development on his head.

What we hope to do at Agricultural Connections is help this sort of society to thrive by offering a central market to sell their food  so that it can always find a hungry plate. Our hope is that this sort of farming can become part of the larger hegemony in Central Oregon and create a community that is more engaged with the personalities of those who grow for them. This week we will be at Jackson’s Corner on the west side to celebrate the food that James and many other’s bring to our community on a weekly basis. Come out and learn more about these champions of the land.

 

Follow Your Food: Baked Polenta “Pasticciata”

This week as we were receiving produce from the fields, Gigi from Windflower Farm stopped by with boxes filled with a colorful array of mustard greens, kale, turnips, and mixed chois. While we were stacking the waxed boxes in the warehouse, I mentioned to Gigi my excitement to include such beautiful produce in our shares this week but have a hard time finding recipes for cooking fresh mustard. She stopped what she was doing to recommend pairing the greens with pork. It was just a quick suggestion, but that little bit of sharing got my mind opened up to new kitchen ideas to diversify how I use greens outside of salad lunches. Every farmer that walks though our door wants comes with their own bite sized suggestion to share how they use these crops. The accumulation of these conversations adds up to create a robust foundation of the knowledge required to eat seasonally. These little moments that arise during our conversations with farmers provide access to information that simply does not exist while browsing though the supermarket.

To often, we shop individually. When left to our own devices, our food decisions are often stressed by imperfect information regarding buying responsibly, sourcing and finding a healthy diet. Ultimately this requires more time to read labels, check prices and find a good tomato in February. We have all been there: walking out through the sliding doors of the grocery store, pushing a full cart, wondering if you could have shopped a little more efficiently, a little more responsibly. As we engage more directly with those who live to grow our food, we gain a better idea of what exactly we are buying. By getting involved with local food systems, we know our money is going towards supporting not only personal health, but it helps develop the community around us. As we open up the dialogue around food,  perspective changes from prescriptive dining, to descriptive eating, where meals are flexible and revolve around what is seasonally available. With this shift comes the understanding that there aren’t really tomatoes in February, and instead creates the question, “what do I do with mustard greens?” It is an exciting question to confront because it requires reaching outside of our world to share ideas with other people. That question is an opportunity to learn what others in the community are doing in their kitchen, and try something new.

In talking with Gigi, my confoundment with mustard greens turned into an opportunity to expand my cooking knowledge. So, to continue the trend, I will pass on what I learned. Whether or not you cook this recipe, I hope that it inspires a new way to cook seasonally in your kitchen.

This recipe is pulled, and altered, from a cookbook by Esquire called “Eat like a Man”. Below is the recipe, with my own adjustments marked with an asterisk. The actual recipe does not actually call for mustard, but it seemed an ammenable alteration. The mustard’s bite provides sharp contrast to the rich, nutty flavor of pork. For anyone who does not eat meat, a similar effect could be gained by sauteing an egg with the greens, then baking in walnuts. Who knows, your alteration could make this even better! But i digress… and here is the recipe:

Ingredients:

Polenta:

9 cups water

2 tsp coarse salt

2 tbsp olive oil

3 cup ground cornmeal (Hummingbird Wholesale)

3/4 cup grated Parmesan

1 tbsp unsalted butter

Ground black Pepper

Sausage: 

2 tbsp unsalted butter (I used olive oil*)

4 garlic cloves, chopped (Groundwork Organics)

2 lb ground pork (DD Ranch)

Red pepper flakes *

1 cup milk (Gerry’s Dairy)

2 cups chopped mustard greens (Windflower Farm) *

1/2 red onion (Cinco Estrellas) *

12 sage, or tarragon leaves (Sakestruck herbary)

Cooking Instructions:

To make the polenta: Bring the water to a boil in a large pot. Add the salt and olive oil, reduce the heat until the water is simmering. Gently rain the cornmeal into the simmering water; add slowly and whisk as you pour to prevent lumps. Cover and set on a very low heat; periodically remove the lid and stir. The polenta will get very thick. After 25-30 minutes, or so, stir in the parmesan, butter, and pepper. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm until ready to stir.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees

To make the sausage: In a large saute pan over medium heat, melt the butter until foamy (or heat the oil). Saute the garlic and herbs, onion until the garlic is golden brown, about 3 minutes. Add the sausage and pepper flakes and stir with a wooden spoon, breaking up any chunks, and cook until the pork loses its pink color and is slightly brown around the edges. Add in the mustard, and sit until it begins to wilt, less than 1 minute. Add the milk,  cover and reduce heat to braise. Cook until almost no liquid remains, 20 min.

Spread oil in the bottom of a 12 inch cast iron skillet. Pour the polenta in first, covering evenly. Spoon the sausage mixture over top. Then, top with crumbled gorgonzola cheese and a bit more parmesan. Bake in the oven, uncovered, for golden and bubbly, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, let it cool for a bit, and then serve.

If you get the pork and polenta going at the same time, the total cooking period is about 50 minutes. This dish is easy, has simple prep, and it loaded with flavor!