Friday, November 27, 2009

Make it the easier way

I love Portland. I'd heard quite a bit about the green city's devotion to all things sustainable before my arrival, and the rumors were confirmed during the 3 1/2 days I spent there. It was by far the most bikeable city I've encountered so far. It turns out, with the on-road bike routes and bike paths -- even designated lanes across most of the city's bridges! -- and racks scattered throughout all quadrants of the city, it is often faster and easier to cycle somewhere than to drive. Though currently only 1% of the city's transportation budget is devoted to cycling, it is a percentage the mayor's office is looking to boost in coming years, I learned from Amy, the advisor to the mayor on sustainability policy. During a chat and tour of the City Hall vegetable garden this past Wednesday, Amy told me about the city's green roofing requirements for newly constructed buildings and green roof retrofitting for many existing structures. I learned, too, of city government's investigation into the purchase of facilities to handle city-wide curbside compost pick-up. I didn't get the sense that there was much by way of residential recycling programs, which seems strange for so green a city in so many other ways. (Portland could take a few notes from Seattle and Olympia on that note; Seattle and Olympia could in turn take notes on the nicer weather here in Oregon.)

People seem to want to do the right thing here, but the trick is to make the "right" way the easier way. I have to admit that when I moved to Brooklyn a few years back, I was as much excited by the comprehensive city recycling program as I was about becoming a public school teacher, but the criteria for recycling was quite complicated. There were elaborate charts and color-coded bags. My landlord once chided me for not using the prescripted twine to tie my neatly stacked piles of old NY Times. We could have been fined. (This was mere months before the city suspended its recycling program for the meticulously rinsed and sorted plastics and glassware. I almost cried. Fortunately for New Yorkers, who generate a heck of a lot of trash, the program was restarted within a year.) Anyway, I get Amy's point and I agree with her: policies and processes need to be in place to make it easier for people to do things more sustainably. If it's too much extra work, most people, including the parents of certain food-minded cycling bloggers, won't do it.

The same goes for buying food: it needs to be relatively easy to support local, sustainable producers. While in town, I also had the pleasure of speaking with a few folks working at New Seasons, a local chain of grocery stores in Portland with a focus on local and organic products. It was something between a co-op and a Whole Foods, both in terms of products and pricing. I spoke first with Joey in the produce dept who told me of the cooperative nature between the 8-store-strong grocer and local farms. It's a delicate balance, I learned, to maintain a base of organic produce that is local and of a great enough variety to retain a steady customer base. I found myself seeking out primarily local produce, but the fresh ginger from Peru and the coriander from California also made it into my shopping cart. "People want to buy locally and seasonally these days," the produce manager pointed out, "But they also want things that don't grow in the region. We are still committed to local and organic as much as possible and we have strong ties to local farms." It's a challenge to maintain the quality and local connections at this scale, but New Seasons seems to be doing a pretty good job. I skipped the dairy section -- I didn't trust that I would be able to resist spending a pile of money on raw sheep's milk cheeses -- and next wandered over to the meat section, where I learned from Charlie that most of New Seasons' connections to local meat, poultry, and seafood farms are extensions from when the chain was a co-op, and all of the items they carry come from Oregon, Washington, and northern California. This is not somewhere I would have trouble shopping, though I'd have to live in Portland to do so -- the chain is determined not to expand to other parts of the country, though they do offer consultations on their business model to interested folks.

I spent my final afternoon and evening in Portland chatting and working alongside Abby of the awesome Abby's Table. The former personal chef had gone to a prestigious culinary school in New York and had worked for years concocting tasty, healthy meals for wealthy folks coping with serious medical conditions. Hence she does a lot of gluten- and dairy-free cooking as well as work with macrobiotics and raw food. (The raw crackers we nibbled on as we cooked and sipped kambucha were just scrumptious.) She'd moved to Portland fairly recently and had been on the lookout for an industrial kitchen out of which she could cater, host weekly communal dinners, and teach. "I realized that what I really wanted to do was empower people to find and prepare healthy food for themselves," Abby confided as we chopped leeks and pureed raw chocolate pudding. "It is possible to find fresh, healthy stuff to eat all year, but a lot of people don't know where to start. That's part of why I offer classes, to help show people the joy of cooking and eating. Sometimes they'll discover a new food at the market or they'll buy one of my sauces and get really excited to try a new recipe. They become more connected to their food."

Once they understand how easy it is to make delicious food, it opens up a whole new world. Abby belongs to a group of food specialists who teach courses for the Urban Growth Bounty series, an Oregon-based initiative that offers classes on everything from raising chickens and bees in your back yard to urban farming to cheesemaking and preserving tomatoes. The classes themselves range from about $15-40 -- a pretty accessible price -- though the series had ended for the year by the time Ollie and I rolled into town so I didn't have a chance to attend one. Now, if that isn't an example of the local policies making it easy to be active participants in sustainable city living, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

OMG, did he just misspell "agribusiness"??

Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and you know what that means. Yep, lots of food -- hopefully lots of local, sustainable food -- and a few days off. I'll bet many of you are looking for something to do besides linger near the cheesecake at the end of the table or play Bananagrams.

During my time as a public school teacher, I was always expected to give some kind of project during school holidays. I tried my best to make these fun but thoughtful assignments. (Well, *I* thought they were fun; it's hard to please teenagers.) In honor of my former students, and inspired by a photo sent to me by my friend Mark earlier today, I've decided to hold a little contest....

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is this: Come up with a caption for the photo above.

Historical note: It marks the first (non-photoshopped) photograph of me with one of my heroes, Michael Pollan. As you can tell, I was looking pretty menacing as the crowd control person at the book signing following Pollan's talk at the Food For Thought festival this past September.

So, put on your thinking caps and don't give in to the seratonin-induced food coma! I'll choose a winner on Dec 1 and send the victor a little care package from the west coast....

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Aw, shucks

In my quest to eat as locally as possible during the ABF project -- lemons and Odwalla bars and coffee and macaroni exempted -- it'd been quite some time since I'd sunk my teeth into any seafood. By the time I arrived in Seattle, I only had a vague recollection of what salmon tasted like. I hadn't had a mussel in months. (Okay, there was the time I slipped going through Chicago and bought a little box of sushi at the Whole Foods. I'd been craving tuna like nobody's business for days, but I was sorely disappointed. I didn't get sick or anything, but there was a certain something missing. Namely flavor. And there was the nightmare-inducing fish fry on my way through northwest Ohio.... No more seafood until I hit the coast, I vowed.) My first night in Seattle, we sauteed some scallops at Pam's house. The following evening Pam treated me to a sushi dinner. The salmon nigiri nearly brought tears to my eyes it was so good. It got me thinking: since I am learning about sustainable food, well, it only makes sense that I look into sustainable seafood when I'm in the Pacific Northwest, right? Good. Oyster research. I'm on it.

I'd first heard of Taylor Shellfish during a chat with Dustin at Art of the Table one afternoon. I went home and looked the up the Washington-based operation, sent out an e mail, and was pleasantly surprised at the speedy and welcoming response from Bill inviting me to speak with him in person and check out a shellfish harvest at their farms near Bellingham or Olympia. (I was surprised as much by the kind nature of the invitation as I was by the fact that he responded at all. In my experience in Washington State, it takes a small miracle for folks to call or write back. I like to think this is because Washingtonians are too busy hiking or gardening or recycling to check their messages.) Anyway, the timing worked out such that I could join Bill and his colleague Marco on my way through Olympia.

I knew the quality of Taylor's shellfish was exceptional -- first, because Dustin had recommended them, and second, because I tried their wares myself. Repeatedly. Just to be sure. For the 3 evenings I was in Bellingham, Kendell, Kirsten, and I feasted on some variety of Taylor oyster, picked up at the Chuckanut shop: raw Virginicas, grilled Virginicas with an herbed mustard garlic sauce, broiled Pacifics on rye toast with more of that divine herbed garlic concoction. On the night I was slated to head out with Bill and Marco to check out their processing facility and a few harvest areas in Shelton (just west of Olympia) a week later, Marco invited me to make dinner with him and his wife. It was here that I learned how to shuck an oyster without accidentally slicing off any fingers. We sampled raw Olympias (quite salty), Virginicas (still my favorite), and Kumamotos (great with lemon) with a nice local wine before we got cracking on the main meal: sauteed scallops with fresh herbs, quinoa, and a warm beet green saute with roasted beets and carrots. We would need our strength, after all, to make it through the evening harvest with a low tide near 1am....

Now, I'd read something awhile back about oysters being used to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and thought, "Wait. Delicious food that purifies our water system? Seriously?? Why doesn't the EPA just dump a boatload of clams in the Potomac? I'll bring the garlic butter for stage two!" Well, I learned from Marco that in fact there are two different kinds of water pollution. There is the toxic variety -- sewage, say, or chemicals from a paper mill -- and the variety that is largely an excess of agricultural nutrients -- aka fertilizer, which causes a burst in algae activity when it leaks into lakes and bays. Oysters and clams and their brethren help address the second type, gobbling up the fertilizer-induced bumper crops of algae that, when mass quantities start to choke the waters as they decompose, would otherwise create "dead zones" -- large pockets of anaerobic underwater activity where fish and plant life cannot survive. Shellfish can help to remediate the effects of industrial ag! At least that was my understanding of the interplay between agricultural runoff, aquatic life, and the mollusk solution. (Now don't go dumping NPK all over the place....)

The beautiful thing about sustainable shellfish farms is that the clams, oysters, geoducks, and mussels clean the water and support (rather than compete with) a healthy aquasystem as they grow. Taylor is meticulous about managing the populations so that the ecosystem remains in balance. It's a very non-invasive operation, so much so that even the PVC cylinders that are used to protect tiny oysters from predators are later coopted as habitat by other underwater creatures. And consider that no chemicals and very little fossil fuel are needed to raise them. They're pretty low maintenance, which may be why folks are starting to get into small-scale shellfish farming all along the coast. All the while, the shellfish farms are producing a tasty, nutritious, renewable food source. Those little guys are packed with vitamins and protein. If you're into that kind of thing. Me, I'm into their amazing tastiness.

You may be wondering what that odd looking thing is that Marco is holding in the picture. Don't worry, this is a G-rated blog. (Or at least PG-rated.) He's holding a geoduck, the first one I had seen up close, though not the specific one that squirted me in the face when Marco hauled it out of the water. I didn't actually see geoducks getting harvested -- we checked out oyster and manila clam operations when I was in town -- but they're really odd looking and fascinating creatures and warranted a photograph. They're the largest burrowing mollusks in the world and some live over 100 years. And they're tasty. I realized when Marco informed me that it's what's known as "giant clam" at sushi restaurants, that I might've eaten this guy's cousin two weeks ago in Seattle. Maybe the eye squirt was the bivalve equivalent of vengeance.

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

The namesake

Many months back, I held a little contest to come up with a name for my new bicycle, my steady, steel-framed companion for the coming year. After many creative (and hilarious) submissions, my friend Ben inspired the winning entry -- Olympia -- during a conversation while riding home from the bike shop one evening, describing Washington's state capital as one of the most beautiful places he'd ever been. Plus, I thought it sounded like a good, sturdy name. (Not that "Bertha" wasn't sturdy sounding.) And it had the added bonus of being roughly half way along our route. This past Thursday morning, Ollie and I rolled (or, rather, slogged) into town and did our best to embrace "all things Olympia" that we could muster during our brief time there....

We got to see a good bit of the north and west sides of town when, mapless, we got somewhat lost on the way from Evergreen College (where I'd joined a potluck and sat in on a film and lecture on pesticides) to Shae's house (where we would be staying); we saw much of the east and south sides heading out of town. Another hilly city, what a surprise. Cute, though, and home to two food co-ops. (We visited both, of course.)

Thursday evening before the trip out to some of the Taylor Shellfish sites to see clam and oyster harvesting in action, Marco, Lalita, and I feasted on fresh seafood at their home -- including tiny, salty, raw Olympia oysters (which, incidentally, had been endangered up until just a few years ago, before groups like Taylor had dedicated efforts to cultivate these tasty native bivalves) and carrots and beets pulled right from the garden. I think the wine and quinoa were sourced a bit further afield, but still: delicious.

Friday, after a trip to the Olympia Coffee Roasting Company for a cup of outstanding fair trade java, we stopped by the town's famous Artesian Well to fill up our water bottles with what was rumored to be the best water anywhere. (It was certainly a heck of a lot better than the water in Iowa. Yeah, I'm talking to you, Des Moines.) The barrista at the coffee house warned me that folks who drink the well water were bound to return to Olympia... or never leave it. (Oooh, foreboding. I triple checked Ollie's tire pressure this morning before we left. Not that it's a dreadful town, but we do have quite a bit of the country yet to explore.)

Friday afternoon, I met with Kim, one of the founders of GRuB -- a community garden and youth empowerment project in town. She gave me a tour of the gardens and told me about some of the cool programs GRuB is involved with: the construction of 100 free kitchen gardens each year for low-income families in the area, the training and employment of at-risk teenagers to grow food for sale at the farmers' market, donations to the local food bank. Sounds like my kind of nonprofit, and Kim helpfully suggested a few other programs to check out as I make my way south through Oregon and California.

Friday evening, I was invited by Ian, of Olympia's own "The Bike Stand" bike shop, to join a few friends for some of the finest local (organic) microbrews around and a plate of fish tacos. Mmm, local cod and cilantro. They say its the great water that makes for such tasty pints at Fish Tales, and I am not altogether unconvinced. Were I not slated for an intense day of cycling the following morning, I more than likely would have tried a few more of them. (I wonder if the town water's mystical properties apply to the beer as well.)

As we make our way toward Portland, I've noticed that Ollie seems a bit sluggish. Most people might think it's the headwinds or the near-constant rain or the unanticipated hills slowing us down, but my hunch is that it's the water trying to draw us back. Onward, Olympia!

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Great Pumpkin

Trying to figure out what to bring to Thanksgiving dinner that will impress friends and loved ones with your culinary prowess? I recommend something seasonal. Might I suggest something with... pumpkin??

So I am, admittedly, a little obsessed with pumpkin. Pumpkin beer, pumpkin and bacon pasta, pumpkin bread.... There was the time in grad school when my cousin Sonia and I decided to make curried pumpkin peanut soup one night. (I thought my boyfriend Adam was going to pass out from hunger, since we didn't finish making it until near midnight. It was damn good, though.) There's the pumpkin ale I made with my boyfriend Nick and my cousin Caroline a few years later when Nick was just starting to tinker with homebrewing. (Dad and I still reminisce about sipping on it that Thanksgiving.) I even took part in a pumpkin-themed Iron Chef competition with some of my brother's friends a few years ago. (With broiled, bacon-wrapped pumpkin spears, and spiced pumpkin seed-marinated grilled turkey legs, we totally should have won. I think it was rigged.)

These gorgeous gourds may be one of my favorite things about autumn. I have, however, in my ongoing quest for pumpkin-related recipes noticed quite a trend toward canned pumpkin. Fresh pumpkin (halved, roasted at 400 degrees for an hour or so until soft enough to scoop out and mash) must make an infinitely superior pie, muffin, etc., much as my brother's sweet potato pie with roasted, mashed sweet potatoes puts the canned competitors to shame. (Yes, aside from large hunks of grilled meat, my kid brother makes a mean sweet potato pie. Though I think his signature dish these days is the french onion soup. Ah. Right. Back on point: pumpkin.) The stuff from scratch must be better, right? I don't know that fresh pumpkin is any more sustainable than canned -- and in fact it makes sense to can some of it for later use -- but when the fresh stuff is available, shouldn't you use it? I'm researching food and clearly this research (tangent) needed more data.

Realizing that it may be some time before I have the luxury of a well-stocked kitchen at my disposal, I decided this afternoon to do a little experiment. I stopped by the market and picked up an organic pie pumpkin and a can of organic pie pumpkin (which listed only one ingredient: organic pumpkin) and got cooking. I adapted a recipe from the Nov 2002 issue of Bon Appétit (Spiced Pumpkin Muffins), making two batches: one with real pumpkin, one with canned. I don't like using sugar when I can avoid it, so there were a number of changes to the original. I did my best to document what I actually did and wrote down the approximate measurements. (Those of you who have cooked with me know I am more of a "handful of this" in my estimates, so it took some work). In honor of Charlie Brown, I give you...

The Great Pumpkin Muffin (makes 12 large or 15 standard size)

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Butter and flour muffin pan.

Whisk in large bowl to blend:
• 1/2 cup all purpose flour
• 1 cup whole wheat flour
• 2 1/2 tsp baking powder
• 1 tsp ground cinnamon
• 1/4 tsp ground cloves
• 1/2 tsp salt
• handful of chopped pecans (unless you're Felicity, in which case you'll try to substitute trail mix -- busted!)

In a separate, medium-sized bowl, stir together:
• 1/2 ripe organic banana OR 1/3 cup apple sauce
• 3 TBSP honey
• 1 1/2 cups roasted pumpkin OR 1 can organic pumpkin
• 1/2 cup skim milk
• 1/2 cup whipping cream
• 2 large eggs
• 6 TBSP (3/4 stick) butter, melted
• 2 TBSP grated, peeled, fresh ginger

Add to dry ingredients and stir just until incorporated (do not overmix).

Spoon 1/4 cup batter into each cup. Bake until muffins are golden and toothpick inserted into center comes out clean (25-35 minutes).

Turn muffins out onto rack and cool. Store muffins airtight at room temperature. (As if you can resist eating them long enough for storage -- ha!)

If you want to fancy them up, make a frosting by blending the following:
• 1/2 stick (4 TBSP) room temperature butter
• 8 ounces of cream cheese
• 1/2 tsp vanilla
• 1 tsp lemon juice or 1/2 tsp powdered ginger
• 1 TBSP honey

When he came back from work, I accosted Kevin to give me feedback on frostingless candidates. After a blind taste test, here's the verdict:

Flavor: fresh pumpkin wins with a stronger, more pumpkinny presence -- Aha!
Texture: canned pumpkin wins with a moister springiness -- Doh!

In retrospect, I think I would puree the roasted pumpkin, which might make the muffins a little airier. In the meantime, I'll see what folks think when I bring some of each to the potluck tomorrow in Olympia....

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

The permaculture puzzle

So I totally miscalculated the distance between Bellingham and Anacortes and missed the noon ferry to Orcas Island on Friday. All was not lost, however, as Ollie and I caught the 3:30 boat and made our way to the Bullock Permaculture Homestead in time for dinner (and a much-needed hot shower). I had heard good things about the folks and their educational focus at Bullock's and was hoping to gain a better understanding of what permaculture is and how it fits into the larger picture of sustainable food. I'd heard the term "permaculture" a few times by now, but was still hazy on what it actually meant.

After breakfast, I spent Saturday morning with a group harvesting medlars. You're probably wondering what the heck a medlar is. I didn't know myself until we got out to the orchard and started gathering windfalls (fruit knocked down by the wind) of these rose family relatives. The rock hard, alien looking fruits soften into something like a paste over the course of a few weeks after harvesting, I was told, and are excellent in preserves. The trees, I believe this particular variety was of English origin, grow amazingly well amid Orcas Island's mediterranean-like climate and are prolific producers of tasty edibles. Why, then, have I -- self-proclaimed lover of all fruits from around the world and a former graduate student of English Literature, which surely must have some mention of the cultivar -- never heard of a medlar? It is one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of varieties of fruit and nut trees that have been uncultivated by the modern food production system and have thus fallen off the food radar. These are the sorts of plants that the Bullock family is seeking to explore for their potential to round out a thriving ecosystem, where humans live in harmony with the land and the land, in turn, provides a year-round cornucopia of edibles. The loss of connection between people and the plants that feed us is part of what permaculture seeks to remedy.

I had no expectation that I would be able to tease out a one-sentence working definition of the term during the brief period I spent working with the Bullocks and interns at the homestead. Heck, I hardly had hopes that I could wrap my head around the general concept enough to attempt a blog post on the topic. But I asked. "Permaculture is something that takes many years to really understand," Doug proposed (in a very kung fu master kind of way). I asked Yuriko what it meant as we separated and potted strawberry runners. I asked Lily as she made bread and Emmett as he showed me around the nursery and the far fields....

Before coming here, my vague understanding was that permaculture was a way of farming that was meant to establish food growth cycles that would require progressively less human effort. I was not altogether off the mark, but the ideas involved go far beyond low maintenance food production. From what I can piece together now, it seems that permaculture is more a way of thinking than a set of specific agricultural techniques. It is a lens through which we can view our relationship to the environment and set things up in a way that is mutually beneficial and requires the least amount of energy. (Not just fossil fuel energy but human energy as well, which is something oft neglected by overworked organic farmers.) Like most worthwhile pursuits, it takes careful observation and thoughtfulness: an awareness of how various elements of the particular ecosystem work; understanding what each part contributes and what it needs to flourish; knowing which areas get more light or less water. People play an integral part, not as reckless consumers nor rabid preservationists but rather as stewards coaxing an increasingly healthy balance throughout the system, all the while sustaining ourselves.

The philosophy seems to invite people to conceptually divide up whatever space they are managing and take into consideration which things need more attention, placing these where they will be most accessible, relegating the less "needy" things to further removed areas. (What a metaphor for life, no?) On a farm, herbs might be easily accessible from the kitchen door, the orchard farther afield, the low-maintenance potato patch further still, the berry bushes that ripen during summer months planted along the path to the swimming hole where people can enjoy a handful of raspberries on the way or pick a few pocketfuls of blueberries for a pie on the walk back. In an apartment building, it may mean finding herbs that do well in planters that get only indirect light or starting a windowsill or balcony garden with plants appropriate for the particular climate zone. More than anything, permaculture encourages a return to common sense (which, sadly, so many of us seem to have lost -- me included, I realized, when someone had to show me how to use flint to start a fire) and utilizing the resources we have at our disposal.

The core of permaculture seems to entail being mindful of the different factors affecting your surroundings and understanding how you can nurture the best each piece of the puzzle has to offer (not necessarily in terms of amount but rather quality, though there is something to be said for quantity). It is something you can do in rural Iowa, on an island in the South Pacific, in a New York apartment, and that's part of what makes it so cool.

So there you have it: permaculture demystified. After two full days of working and questioning and observing and pondering, I wonder: Doug, how'd I do?

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Getting down to business

Earlier this week, I had the chance to check out a town marketed as a model of urban sustainability on the west coast. (Calm down, Portland and Eugene, you're in a different category. I'm talking small towns, but you could take a few notes.) I'd heard from my friend Pam that there were unusual levels of social and environmental consciousness in Bellingham, and as it was only a day and a half's bike ride north of Seattle (or a day's ride if I hitched along the last bit with my friend Kirsten's husband on his way back from work in Mt. Vernon), Ollie and I braved the blustery rain and made our way up Route 9, past quite a number of stunning vistas and Skagit Valley farms. In spite of the weather, flat #7 of the trip, and a pit stop to pick up fresh oysters at Taylor Shellfish along the way, we made pretty good time. (Hey, Taylor was right on my way, quite literally, and I had heard good things about the sustainable seafood operation from Dustin and... actually, there is no need for apologies: those were some darn good oysters. More on Taylor in a future post.)

On Wednesday afternoon, after a quick trip to the local food co-op (one of two, actually), I hiked over to meet with Laura who had recently taken over the Food & Farm Manager position at Sustainable Connections. As it was an unusually beautiful day, we decided to take a walk while Laura brought me up to speed on some of the innovative work her organization is doing to foster collaborative relationships among local vendors and promote thoughtful business practices. From waste reduction to green construction, Sustainable Connections -- I'll call them "SC" for short (probably not approved by their marketing dept, but it's a bit long to keep typing on the blackberry) -- seems to have helped quite a number of local groups become even more conscientious community players. I learned, for example, of the partnership between Mallard's ice cream shop and a number of area farms when Laura and I chatted with SC member Ben while he offered us samples of his tasty wares: apple pie, grape, and pumpkin were among the featured flavors with local, seasonal ingredients. (My favorite learning experiences always involve food -- what a surprise.) When farms have a bumper crop of berries or basil, they ring up Ben and drop off a few crates. Then the flavor experimentation begins.

What I was most intrigued by during my chat with Laura was SC's "Food to Bank On" farm mentorship program, whereby farmers just starting up in the area are given the opportunity to work with established farmers on everything from creating a business plan to troubleshooting during the growing season. Not only that, but the first year -- I think it was only for the first year -- new farms are guaranteed a market, selling a portion of their products to the local food pantry. I was curious to speak with some of the participants in the program.

On Thursday, Kirsten, Kendall, Marco, Lupe, and I hopped in the truck to visit a few nearby farms, including one listed on the SC business roster: Hopewell Farm. After admiring the kale and chard in the garden, Kirsten and I wandered to the farm stand where I was instantly taken with the gorgeous romanesco (a variety of cauliflower, I believe, with wild, beautiful spirals, and delicious when roasted with fennel seeds and kalamata olives, I would learn that evening). We struck up a conversation with Tiffany -- pictured here with the striking swirled brassica -- and Dorene, the farmer's wife. I learned that along with the mentoring and food bank elements, members of the SC also enjoyed benefits like discounts at fellow members' operations and regular opportunities for business development. While Hopewell was no longer an active mentor farm, and past experiences with that particular initiative were mixed, Dorene agreed that the benefits of SC membership were many and varied, and my impression was that she was among many happy local participants.

I'm hoping to follow up with a few more folks to hear their thoughts on SC's impact in Whatcom County, but so far this seems like a pretty amazing business community.

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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Under the radar

I'd first heard of Art of the Table from my friend Rei on Monday afternoon. After poking around the restaurant's website, I was pretty excited about the small venue with a reputation for seasonal cooking and decided to brave the hills and rain that night to make the trek out to Wallingford to check the place out for myself. I mean, what are the chances that I should come across *another* deeply passionate local food devotee? (It is Seattle, considered one of the best cities for delicious, sustainably-produced food in the country, but even so there are very few eateries committed to exclusively local, seasonal sources.)

After some navigational mishaps -- a few wrong turns and a route that took me up what must be the most gigantic hill in the city (I don't know why I have any faith at all in the "bike" setting on the GPS, considering its track record, but I keep hoping) -- Ollie and I made it there. Not only that, but I had the good fortune to snag one of two seats at the kitchen window and treated myself to a glass of wine and a small plate (okay, two: I couldn't decide between the crepe and the flan, and even now I doubt I could choose between them) while I watched the two chefs at work. They moved about the small space effortlessly, gracefully, almost silently, as if they were two hands rather than two people, and as I nibbled I couldn't quite bring myself to interrupt the flow with a jarring, "So tell me, where did you find these amazing huckleberries?" or "Now, how exactly do you design the weekly menus?" I left with a happy tummy but a lot of unasked questions. Well, that wouldn't do.

The next day, I called to see if Dustin, the head chef, might be amenable to chatting with me a bit about his food philosophy and his connections with local producers. I got the voicemail and blathered on for entirely too long, and yet a day or two later he called back and nonchalantly invited me to drop by during Saturday's dinner prep. So I did.

I spent the better part of the afternoon entranced as Art of the Table's dynamic trio prepared for the evening meal. I'm not sure they knew quite what to make of me, perched on a stool by the sink, half the time simply transfixed by the smooth precision of the two men moving about the kitchen while Laurie got the dining space in order. When I wasn't rendered speechless watching Phil pat each individual squash ravioli into shape or Dustin meticulously remove tiny bones from a salmon fillet or check the marinating veal cheeks for the evening's supper club, I managed to learn a bit about the tenets behind the food. Dustin's training in the French culinary arts may explain his expertise combining flavors and textures -- and the food is truly exceptional -- but what I admire most about the quietly intense culinary artist is his fanatical adherence to using only local, sustainable ingredients. The evening meals he and Phil painstakingly prepare are all made from scratch and sourced within the state. (Except for beef, he admitted, which sometimes comes from as far away as... Oregon. Oregon! Whose border is a day's bike ride away!) He spends hours each week scouring the farmers' markets, even on his days off, and has built strong relationships with local producers of everything from salmon to bacon to chocolate. Dustin's the real deal, a locavore in the strictest sense (although my guess is he'd probably never use such a trendy term to describe himself).

His outlook on the culture surrounding food is imbued with European sensibilities, and it's something, he proposed, that has been largely lost in our modern American lives. Food appreciation is experiencing a revival a few evenings a week here, though. I learned from Laurie, who manages the restaurant's logistical details, that folks making reservations for one of the supper club dinners rarely know ahead of time what will be on the menu. They simply know the theme -- this week it was "Italy" -- and trust that the chef will delight them with local, seasonal inventions. And he does. (While I didn't stay for the dinner -- unfortunately it was not quite within the current ABF budget -- I did take a look at the final menu and will likely be dreaming about it for some time.)

Like Anne Catherine, the local food aficionado whom I'd spoken with earlier in the week, Dustin hadn't moved to Seattle with a plan to open a restaurant. After years of cooking on ships and working as a private chef, he'd been looking to do some catering. He came across the restaurant space and got to thinking and, well, the rest, as they say, is history. "I could do this for the next 20 years," Dustin told me, matter-of-factly. "Here, I focus on the food," he asserted, unabashed. "I don't advertise. People find me through word of mouth. They know what I'm about and they come here because of it. They appreciate it. I'd like to keep it that way. I'd rather be under the radar." A renegade foodie. I like it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Always in season

A few days after my arrival in Seattle, Pam treated me to Sunday brunch at one of her favorite neighborhood haunts, A Caprice Kitchen. We enjoyed a fabulous meal, but I was enamored with more than just the charming ambiance and the inventive vittles. When I turned over the menu, there was a note from the chef stating her commitment to seasonal, local foods and a listing of each ingredient next to the farm, bakery, or dairy it came from. A woman after my own heart. I had to know more. I left a cookmark with our waitress and was just elated when chef Anne Catherine called to invite me for a chat.

Ollie and I returned on Tuesday morning as Anne was getting things set up to accept deliveries from a number of local farms. Unpretentious and welcoming, she offered me a seat and a glass of local cider and in between periodically signing for deliveries shared a bit about how she came to run this small, all-local (with the exception of perhaps the salt and breakfast tea) eatery. Her background in cooking comes from a lifelong passion for food, years of working on ships as a chef, later attending the highly-esteemed Le Cordon Bleu cooking institute. She hadn't intended to open a restaurant when she came to Seattle, she admitted, but was looking for a space with a commercial kitchen to teach cooking classes and host regular, seasonal group meals. It just kind of happened.

As we continued talking, I admitted to my fascination with the direct link between the kitchen and local producers. I had even sought out a few of the farms listed on the menu at the Ballard farmers' market after leaving the restaurant, and a few of the vendors mentioned that some of their customers had discovered the products via Anne's menus. (She seemed genuinely excited to hear this.) When I asked how she selected producers, I learned that the locavore had established relationships with growers at the farmers' markets over many months, first doing her personal shopping there and then later sourcing ingredients for the professional kitchen. Because of her fierce devotion to local ingredients -- "Why would I use blood oranges from California when apples and pears are in season right here?" -- she's developing a reputation among local producers who are now seeking her out to feature their local veggies, wines, and more. While she tries out a new supplier now and then, Anne's loyalty to the farms who supply her all year long are the backbone of her operation. As these partnerships have flourished, she strives to work with what the farms have available. Because of her steady support farmers often ask if there's anything she would like them to grow. "No," she insists, "Grow what you want and I will cook it." Much like CSA members are given a box of "whatever the farm has" each week, the Caprice Kitchen may well be the truest iteration of an RSA I have encountered.

Chef Anne Catherine may be one of the few people I have met in my life who loves food as much as I do -- she relishes opportunities to experiment with fresh ingredients, cook up a storm, and share it with people. Even on her rare days off she can be found foraging for wild mushrooms or visiting farms. (She had just gone searching for chantrelles the day before I stopped in. Oh, if only I had known I would have tried to talk her into taking me along: I'm dying to go mushrooming!) The business, even now as the restaurant is about to celebrate its one-year anniversary on Thanksgiving, is more about reconnecting people with delicious, in-season food and supporting local growers than turning a profit. (The operation does make enough to cover its costs, so I'm hopeful it will be around for a long time.) I would be lying if I didn't confess that a small part of me kind of wants to linger in Seattle a bit longer to see what will be on the menu next week....

Farm to four-top

I've been hearing about CSAs -- Community Supported Agriculture -- for quite some time. Some years ago I recall my friend Yochi and I sitting on his living room floor discussing whether or not it made sense for us to split a CSA share from one of the few options in the DC area. (This was years before the Washington Post published a convenient list of CSAs in the area and back when I had a refrigerator. Ah, memories.) These days there are thousands of CSAs all around the country. It's exciting to see individuals, couples, groups of friends, and families making the decision to directly support their local farms by purchasing a share. But how about larger buyers like restaurants, that could really help boost the local farm economy by guaranteeing a market for small producers? Is it even possible to run an eatery that entirely (or even mostly) sources its ingredients locally? Well, it turns out the answer is yes. Enter, the RSA -- Restaurant Supported Agriculture.

In Chicago, I remember chatting with Derrick, of the scrumptious Lula Cafe, and learning of periodic chef visits to local farms, including the urban City Farm, and regular scouring of the city's many farmers' markets for seasonal ingredients. But the first time I heard the term "RSA" was when I was up to my elbows in bike grease from changing a flat tire and happened to walk into Julie's office where she was meeting with chef and local food advocate Dave Swanson in Milwaukee. The two were in the middle of a meeting (and, as I said, I was covered in grease) so I didn't chat for long, but the brief explanation I got from Dave was enough to inspire me to learn more about the farm-to-restaurant connection. The Milwaukee-based program fosters connections between farmers and chefs, and Dave helps interested restaurants work out the financial and logistical pieces of the puzzle. But there are also a growing number of bistrots who are independently working to source their food locally. As I've made my way westward, when I am fortunate enough to find a place that isn't too cost prohibitive for me to splurge on a meal (or, on occasion, be treated to one), I've been doing my best to learn how innovative restauranteurs connect with local growers. There are some common challenges among restaurants, but also viable models for success. In coming posts, I'll be looking into some of the innovative farm-to-table connections I've discovered along the way....

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Breathless in Seattle

For the first few days, I thought it was the coffee that had my heart racing. (Espresso... sweet nectar....) Then I thought the increased heart rate might be attributed to my growing excitement as I learned more about the flourishing local food scene. (The seafood alone makes me a bit weak in the knees, and then consider that chantrelles and fennel are still in season here. Oh, my. Is it hot in here?) In fact, it turns out there are some climbs around town. Here, where I should be safe from various mountain ranges -- I'm practically on the coast! -- I find myself out of breath in SeattHILL.

Tonight, as Ollie and I wound our way from the Sustainable Ballard monthly garden group meeting across town to a late happy hour at Art of the Table (which, by the way was totally worth the lung I coughed up half way up the never ending hill), and I cursed my poor route planning, I found myself wondering if Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh could hold its own in a match-up against 65th Street here in Seattle. My money's on the west coast contender.

Stay tuned for a post on the amazing food scene. Just as soon as I stop hyperventilating. (Meanwhile, I'm going to look into strapping a Wonderflonium-powered jet pack to Ollie's rear rack....)

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