Sunday, February 12, 2017

Food and philanthropy

The last weekend of January marked the ninth annual Sips & Suppers fundraiser here in our nation's capital. Talented chefs and mixologists, mostly from around DC, donate their time, homeowners donate their space, and people of means buy tickets to happy hours or fancy small group dinners around town. All funds raised go to two awesome local nonprofits -- DC Central Kitchen and Martha's Table. I usually miss the boat on such things, and read about them in the Post Food Section after the fact, but this year I managed to hear about a call for volunteers about a month beforehand. By sheer coincidence, I ended up as a waitress at a dinner in my neighborhood led by a pair of vegan chefs from Philadelphia. Between serving courses, volunteers got to taste some of the goodies, too, and I was privy to some of the best butter-free dishes I've ever come across. Not that having a vegan repertoire is a particular point of interest these days, but I do appreciate plant-based foods and folks who make them well.


At the end of the evening, as well fed neighbors tottered back to their homes or their waiting Ubers, I leaned back against the counter and smiled to myself. THIS warm fuzzy feeling was only slightly attributable to the grappa our host poured at the end of the night, and mostly due to the realization that we, as community members, CAN do good things when we come together over food.

Flash forward a couple of weeks. A daily stream of horrific White House actions and cabinet appointments found me again lapsing into anger and frustration. Then my new friends Amy and Liz had a BRILLIANT idea: cook a bunch of food, get a case of wine, invite a bunch of friends over, and raise money for a charity that is working to address some of the fears and concerns we have about what's going on in this country. We don't need to be restaurant chefs or wealthy people. We can cook. We have friends who are conscientious, like good food, and can kick in a little. Every little bit helps.

The hostesses decided to prepare a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern feast. (Take that, Muslim ban!) And because it was looking like almost two dozen people might show up last night, and I know a thing or two about food from that part of the world, I offered to help cook.... Hummus. Tabbouleh. And I think I counted four other salads. Peppers stuffed with lamb and spices. Carrot and chickpea tajine. Roast chicken with fennel and tangerines. I could barely pedal my way to the salsa club after not one but TWO dessert courses. But I did, of course. (I saw the concern on your face just then.)


In the end, eleven dinner guests left with full bellies and happy hearts, and, bolstered by an additional eight or nine contributors in absentia, we raised a thousand dollars for the ACLU. That warm glow resurfaced, and this time it was only slightly due to the champagne. We can help each other, and save this country, one meal at a time. We might just need to make this a regular thing!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Part of the solution

Almost exactly eight years ago, I decided to leave behind a job that was making me miserable to seek a more joyful and fulfilling life in food education. I had no idea what my new life would look like, but on the eve of the inauguration of our first African American president, my heart swelled with pride that my countrymen (and women) had elected such a thoughtful and articulate leader, I was filled with hope. Fourteen months and over 8,000 miles later, I was home and filled with new knowledge and connections to new friends across the country. I was still hopeful, and my friends and family, though concerned, were encouraging. It still took a couple of years to carve out a stable job doing work that I love, but patience and hard work and determination and luck combined to get me there eventually. Anything was possible. The White House had an organic garden, for heaven's sake, and kids and families across the country were starting to love eating kale!

Flash forward eight years. Though my work, family, and community of friends these days warm my heart daily, I've been in a mild state of depression since the most recent presidential election. Apparently anything is still possible... but not in a good way this time.  Did we really elect this ding dong?? (By "we" I certainly do not mean "me." Good god, no.) With an ignorant bully at the helm, how could I hope to teach my students about community, about thoughtful questioning, about making good choices for themselves and the planet? How could I bring myself to encourage them to recycle at school when our whole COUNTRY was heading directly into a landfill? I stress baked, but it didn't make me feel much better. I lost my appetite for weeks -- good thing I cook and eat with kids a few times a day or I might've given up food altogether.


This weekend, at last I was again hopeful, again proud of my fellow citizens. Together, we marched. Together, we stood up -- peacefully -- and stood together. As we marched, I reflected on how we each have our role to play in these tumultuous times, to keep our spirits up and our elected officials accountable. As my visiting friend Jenn so eloquently put it during our post-march meal this weekend, quoting one of her social work professors, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

My question now is: how can we each use our passions and skills to make an even bigger difference? Letter writing isn't so helpful when one only has a shadow Senator (though those in other states would do well to regularly contact their Representatives and Congressmen). And there are concrete ways to help those in danger of being marginalized by the imminent policy changes: donating time, money, or supplies to groups working to settle refugees, improve voter turnout, nurture children and the elderly, help veterans and the homeless, stand up for gender/sexual equality, foster better relations with those across the aisle so we don't end up in this mess again in four years.... We're going to need all of our collective good will channeled into something constructive beyond the march. Where does the need overlap with my skillset? Do I make muffins for protesters? Volunteer to help with local elections in a nearby state that in two years may improve the balance of power in Congress? Start a weekly cooking group that then donates to a local soup kitchen? I wonder.

How can YOU be part of the solution?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The winter ale of our discontent

You may recall that the weekend after the election I headed out to visit my friends Matt and Amanda near Charlottesville, VA. While I was officially there for the Homebrew for Hunger event, we also got to brewing our first collaborative ale. When planning our first co-brewed beer in the months leading up to the election, we'd thought to call it Across the Aisle Ale or somesuch. You see, though Matt is a card-carrying Republican, and I am obviously not one, we could agree on a few things:
1) Trump is a jerk
2) Beer is awesome
3) After a handful of years of friendship and beer drinking it was about time we brewed something together

By the time I arrived in Barboursville in early November, we had decided to rename the beer: The Winter Ale of our Discontent was born. It was to be a winter warmer-style beer, with cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla bean, and featuring honey from both DC and VA. Yum, eh?

It was a lot of fun, and marked my first time getting to play with tools that are part of the next level of homebrewing. First, we got our wort going on a serious propane stove on the back deck:


Once cooled, we added yeast and aerated our brew with a stirring spoon drill attachment:


I totally want one of those now. Then we waited a couple of months for it to ferment to perfection.

The cold and rainy Saturday before the inauguration of He Who is Orange and Shall Not Be Named, Matt and Amanda came for a visit, with TWAOOD in tow:


After a few beers and some snacks, it was time to break out the bottling equipment. Things went quickly, thanks to Jess and Ben who joined us for bottling... and dinner and cocktails out, but who's keeping track?:



It's going to be a rough winter -- who am I kidding, it's going to be a rough FOUR YEARS -- but at least I've got a few 6-packs of homebrewed winter warmer to get me through the first bit. Cheers to collaboration beers!!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Ahimsa

I am ready for 2016 to be over. A lingering heartache, the election of a misogynist bully to lead our country, serious injuries and deaths of friends... The start of my 39th lap around the sun yesterday included news that my dear friend, herbal guru, and beloved yoga teacher Tricia had been missing since Christmas, her beaten body found two days later in her car. That her final moments on earth were filled with fear and pain makes me deeply sad and fiercely angry. Why??

In recent years Tricia and I had exchanged favorite new outfits at clothing swaps, watched 4th of July fireworks together in the mist from her balcony, ventured hours away to see my favorite musician in concert whom she had never heard of but instantly loved, camped on the beach and been awoken by curious wild ponies at 4am, eaten our body weight in local seafood, brewed beer, concocted herbal first aid remedies, and shared many hours on the yoga mat. I had just seen her on Friday afternoon, when she'd stopped by to help bottle our first ever batch of hard cider. A regular member of our Sunday Ladies Brewing Club, in spite of her gluten intolerance, Tricia was excited to help with this highly experimental brew that she could actually drink. Then we'd emailed back and forth a few times on Sunday in the late afternoon, excitedly putting pieces in place for her to lead another bitters making class this spring. How long was it between her last email and her last breath? Why did I not hug her longer when I last saw her on Friday? Was the homemade granola I'd given her to celebrate winter solstice the last thing she'd eaten on Sunday, before traveling to the holiday dinner at which she never arrived? I can't stop crying.

One thing that Tricia taught me by her example over the course of our friendship was the principle of Ahimsa, which I understand as the careful cultivation of nonviolence in thought and deed. She was no doormat, mind you, but aspired to always be loving and forgiving and respectful toward herself and others. It was one of the many things I admired about my friend, and I tried to practice it, too. I am really struggling with embodying this principle now, with the lack of it shown Tricia by the person who needlessly took her life. Would this not be the most important time to practice Ahimsa, though, when it is the most difficult? Is this how I can best honor my friend? I wonder.

One thing that Tricia has taught me through her death is to not take things for granted: people, opportunities, life. None of us saw this coming. How could we? Not knowing which day will be our last makes each moment precious -- a good reminder to cultivate joy and love whenever and wherever we can during the time that we have, leaving our mark in the hearts of others.


Farewell, my beautiful, fearless, loving friend. My heart will miss you for a long time, as will the hearts of so many whose lives you have brightened by just being you. Back to the earth you go, to nurture us yet another way.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Star-crossed ale

Well, it had to happen eventually: my first brewing mishap.


Few things are more sad than throwing out a batch of homebrew. A death in the family, of course, or the 2016 election results, say. Thankfully I am not dealing with the former, though I am going to need significantly more beer around to cope with the latter. This batch of psudo-beer, however, went to the worms....

Back in mid-September, my lady friends and I got together to whip up our second-ever all-grain beer: a rhubarb saison. With a fancy Belgian yeast and many pounds of freshly milled grains from 3 Stars, a few pounds of rhubarb from my landlady's garden, and a homemade mashtun inherited from my pal Bobby, we were all set for brewing greatness. With successful batches of pumpkin saison, belgian dark ale, persimmon red ale, scotch ale, and even an all-grain vanilla porter under our belts, we had no reason to expect anything other than delicious results. As recommended by the dude at the 3 Stars shop, I'd even read a homebrewing book cover to cover -- The Joy of Homebrewing, in case you're interested  -- prior to brew day. After a fairly organized brew session that Sunday afternoon, things were smelling good and looking good that first evening as the carboy bubbled away in my kitchen. However, as we were transferring the wort into the fermenter, I had noticed we had barely 3.5 gallons of wort, so I boiled a few more gallons (you never know what's in DC tap water) on the stove. It wasn't nearly cool enough even 3 hours later to add to the carboy, so I left it til the morning -- covered to prevent contamination, of course.

But maybe it wasn't sterile any more, I worried the next morning, so I boiled it again. By lunchtime, the doubly boiled supplemental water was cool enough to pour in, bringing our brew up to the five gallon mark. And then... no more bubbling. I waited another 24 hours. Still no sign of activity. A panicked search through my homebrew book yielded this advice:


WHAT?! You don't just drop this into a little bullet point tucked away in the middle of a chapter! THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN IN BOLD FONT AND UNDERLINED!!

Maybe the lesson learned here is that I shouldn't have been so greedy for a full five gallons of rhubarb ale. Or maybe it's that I need to be a better note-taker, should have marked that very important point while reading. I teach whole lessons on following directions, for heaven's sake! I shook my fist at the heavens, and then at the carboy, but there was still no bubbling.

A week or so later, my friend Jessica sent me an article on when to dump a batch of homebrew gone amiss. The long and short of it is: pretty much never, unless it tastes bad. Well, it didn't taste like much. We added more yeast -- this one not as fancy, but perfectly acceptable -- a few days later, but in retrospect I think I might have accidentally sanitized the yeast when trying out a new sanitizing solution on the funnel we poured it through. (Was this beer star-crossed from the beginning, I wonder?) More than 24 hours later, still no activity. Did I kill the yeast again? Or, one of my brewing companions suggested, was it possible that maybe we hadn't gotten sufficient sugars from the grain using the mashtun during the initial steeping so there was nothing for the yeast to break down? The measurements we took suggested there was practically no alcohol in there. Hmm. Maybe it needed more time?

Finally, now more than two months later, our moment of truth arrived as the Ladies Sunday Brewing Club gathered to start working on our first batch of hard cider. (That is a WHOLE other tale, with its own misadventures, for another day. It is still bubbling away... at the moment, at least.) We decanted some of the maybe-rhubarb-beer-maybe-not from the carboy and tasted it. I believe the resounding assessment confirmed my suspicion that we'd accidentally made artisanal Bud Light, which in the homebrewing world is tantamount to a felony. (Or if it isn't, it should be.) We looked up how we could use our five gallons of not-beer. No, not this article, this one. After reading about beer-based home distilling (a no-go if it's bad tasting beer to begin with) and culinary uses (I couldn't imagine using 5 GALLONS to braise poultry or make mustard), we stumbled upon the fact that beer provides an excellent boost for microbial activity in the garden. And... done!



R.I.P., Rhubarb Saison. My garden thanks you, even if my fragile homebrewing ego does not.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Cocinando en Spanglish


A few weeks ago, Ellie at DC Greens kindly invited me to lead a cooking demo at the beautiful new Mary's Center location in Fort Totten. We decided that it would be a hands-on seasonal cooking class, a fun culmination activity for participants in their Fruit and Vegetable Prescription program. (I've written about the innovative program  before, back when I taught similar cooking classes at the Upper Cardozo clinic during Wholesome Wave's pilot year of FVRx in DC. The short version is that doctors at affiliate clinics identify low-income individuals -- often kids -- at high risk for obesity, and the families can opt into the program which includes monthly health checkups, nutrition counseling, an exercise regimen, and, most awesomely, they receive a weekly "prescription" for fruits and vegetables redeemable at area farmers markets. Families get $10 per week *per family member* to spend on local produce, above and beyond any other food assistance they may receive. Talk about making healthy food the easy choice!)

Oh, did I mention that my class would be taught in Spanish?

I don't use my Spanish much these days outside of salsa club chitchat, but I figured I was somewhat fluent after working in Mexico a decade ago. Should be just like riding a bike, right? Let me just say that the Briya/Mary's Center staff and participants were very kind with their gentle corrections and patience as we chopped cebollas (onions), peeled and grated camote (sweet potatoes), and picked many handfuls of cilantro (cilantro! whew, an easy one). Together, about a dozen of us prepared sweet potato tacos, cilantro lime yogurt, and a cabbage slaw, which we enjoyed at the end of class. The women were so friendly, so gracious with their thanks, and some came up afterwards to tell me they were excited to try the quick, tasty, inexpensive recipe at home. Win!!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Drink to end hunger

This weekend, I ventured back to my old stomping grounds in western Virginia,  where I spent a few sunny days (and chilly nights) cooking, eating, drinking, brewing, and exploring the area with my friends Matt and Amanda. It was good to escape the District for a few days, where I'd been vacillating between anger and despair since Tuesday night....


Though I fear the direction in which our country is heading, I have faith in smaller communities and the inherent good in most people...and the power of having a drink together. If you can sit around and share a frosty beverage with someone, you can work through a lot, no matter your political differences. Yesterday, for instance, I took part in one of the coolest events I've been to in awhile: Homebrew for Hunger. (That's Amanda by the sign.)  Amateur beer brewers from surrounding counties descended on Charlottesville around 11am, with kegs and bottles of their homemade libations that they were donating to raise funds for the Blue Ridge Food Bank. A live band, a few food trucks, and a couple of professional local brewers with seasonal drafts filled out the parking lot. Community folks showed up around 1pm, and for the next four hours we all sampled beer, nibbled on pretzels, and swapped homebrew tips and horror stories.

It was awesome. I had some of the best sour ales and other unusual brews, including a rye-based berlinerweisse based on an 18th century recipe(!), and started brainstorming ideas with Matt about a collaborative beer we could make for next year. I might have to bring along some spent grain goodies as well. I mean, it is Homebrew for *Hunger*...and a woman cannot live on beer and pretzels alone!