Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bring us your squeaking, your pied, your untrued wheels

Ever since I picked her up from her tune-up at a bike shop across town in early July, I've been noticing an odd clicking feeling in Ollie's pedals. It only seems to happen when I'm in the lowest few rear gears, but so far as I could tell the clicking wasn't affected by moisture, temperature, terrain, or how much stuff I was schlepping. The shop had installed a new chain and cassette (covered, thankfully, by my Keep It Rolling plan), and supposedly replaced all of the cables and housing (part of the not inexpensive mid-level tune-up), but this clicking was new (a freebie?). I noticed the pedal pressure oddity and a notable-yet-not-constant squeaking on my way home from the shop, but rode Ollie around for a few days just in case it was simply due to some of her new parts settling in.

Though I've ridden a fair number of miles by now, and though I'd worked briefly at a bike shop (mostly updating the website and moving bikes in and out of storage), what did I know? I knew only enough to ascertain that something was amiss rather than what the cause might be. I didn't even know the names of all of the parts that could be involved. Maybe it was just the cables stretching, the mechanic suggested when I called. And the sporadic, high-pitched squeaking on one side? Was I riding around on a suicide cycle?? I was hoping for a second opinion.

Thus I was glad to happen upon the friendly guys who were staffing the free bike repair tent at the Bloomingdale farmers' market this Sunday. Jeff quickly determined the source of the odd clicking in the pedals. As I leaned in, he pointed out how in certain gears the chain was clicking against the metal part that usually keeps it lined up correctly. (I think it's part of the derailleur, technically.) We tried adjusting placement of the clamp that holds the derailleur in place, but that seemed to make it worse. Maybe it's not quite the right part that was installed during the tune-up? Maybe there is a more precise adjustment that needs to be made in a fully outfitted bike shop? Hmm. The mystery, to a degree, continues. We didn't fix everything, but I left the market feeling much better about things, and glad that someone else noticed the pedal clicking and the occasional and inexplicable high-pitched squeak. I was also glad to learn that I was not riding an imminent-deathtrap around, though I was advised to bring Ollie into a shop as soon as I am able.

I love these sorts of programs, run for free by folks who just want to help and teach and empower others. (I find myself doing this quite a bit myself with food education, but I do need to pay my rent so I have been trying to get better about charging something for the more substantial work.) There are a number of free bike clinics around the city, mostly at farmers' markets, including the Petworth (Friday), Glover Park (Saturday), Mount Pleasant (Saturday), and Bloomingdale (Sunday) markets.

The Bike House folks are also running mobile bike clinics at various locations around Wards 7 & 8 -- apparently wards that are not only food deserts but bike shop deserts as well. Yes, this is a program after my own heart. Those who are interested in helping out the Bike House can find information here on volunteering (or donating or contributing items on their wish list).

So thank you, kind Bike House peeps. I didn't have more than $2 on me to contribute to the donation jar for your friendly services, but I can offer this poem that Ollie and I wrote in thanks:

Bring us your squeaking, your pied,
Your untrued wheels, you need not take the bus,
The flats and brakes we can repair market-side.
Send these, the carless, traffic-tossed, to us:
We lift our multi-tools so all may ride.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Need help buying food? Ask me.

Saturday marked my first visit to the Ward 8 Farmers' Market, set up next to the impressive ARC facility on Mississippi Avenue in Southeast DC. I'd been hearing about the market for a number of months from my friend Michael (the market's manager) and the chance to do some SNAP outreach with my friend Crissa (of DC Hunger Solutions) presented me with the perfect opportunity to check out this seasonal market not so very far from the Southern Avenue stop near the end of the green line metro.

SNAP -- for those new to food policy or this blog -- stands for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which in DC can be in the form of EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) cards, WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) vouchers, and/or Senior FMNP (Farmers' Market Nutrition Program) coupons. In short: food stamps. Thanks to a group called Wholesome Wave, the Ward 8 market, like a growing number of farmers' markets in the area -- including the Columbia Heights Community Market, the Crossroads market, and some of the FreshFarm markets -- offers Double Dollars. Most of these subsidized markets will double up to $5 or $10 (per shopper, per market) the amount of fresh, local food that low-income shoppers can purchase using EBT, WIC, or FMNP payment methods... but the Ward 8 Market is the first one I have ever been to that will double all of these without a limit on per-market usage. So someone with, say, $30 to spend can get $60 in fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables in a single visit. (I can totally consume $60 in fresh produce in a week. So can a normal family of four.) Now that's pretty awesome.

[Actually, speaking of awesome, my favorite story about the Ward 8 market involves a local group of do-gooders who call themselves The Awesome Foundation: Having been chosen from among the inaugural pool of applicants for the first round of DC's Awesome Foundation grants, Michael told me of an afternoon a few months back when a woman handed him a paper bag full of cash -- $1,000, to be exact -- so that his fledgling market could offer free, snazzy canvas bags for first time market shoppers to tote their produce. True story. And much less shady than many of the recent goings on involving piles of cash and officials in this fair city of mine....]

While the Ward 8 Farmers' Market is not overly large -- two produce vendors, a potted plant seller, a guy selling fresh bread and frozen pastured meats -- it was well attended by a nice mix of loyal regulars and first timers who came by the information tent to pick up their double dollars. I had donned a bright green "Need help buying food? Ask me" t-shirt and as I worked alongside Crissa to hand out informational fliers and recipe cards, I quickly learned that most folks that I spoke with at the market who can receive food assistance benefits already know about and receive them. There were a few who asked for more information on behalf of friends or relatives who were new mothers or elderly, but most were pretty savvy. (I will say that it was a little unsettling to realize that these days I would actually qualify for food stamps myself. Eep.) It was a friendly group of neighborhood shoppers and farmers who, I must say, were pretty generous souls. I mean, how often does a complete stranger offer me some of his delectable fresh peaches from the market on the walk to the subway? (Okay, that sounds sketchy, but it totally wasn't!) I learned as much about the generosity of the human spirit as I did about food assistance programs that day.

I am not sure how typical Saturday's market day was -- the site was shared with an FCA Community Day -- but it was a pretty steady crowd and I saw lots of produce and vouchers exchanged. I have a hunch that Michael and his small cadre of local food producers will continue to contribute to building a happier, healthier community of local food shoppers out in Ward 8 for quite awhile.

Friday, July 22, 2011

In a pickle

Much as I don't "follow" recipes as such, I must say that after the flavor mishaps with my inaugural attempt at pickled okra last summer I am not keen on the idea of slaving over many jars of preserved produce for mediocre effect. Yet neither do I generally opt to make things out of a package. Hmmm. After reading recipe after online recipe calling for "premade pickling spice," I came across a basic recipe for pickling spices (thank you,

Pickling Spice

-6 TBSP mustard seed
-3 TBSP whole allspice
-6 tsp coriander seed (or, er, however much you have, which in my case was only 3 tsp)
-6 whole cloves
-3 tsp ground ginger
-3 tsp red pepper flakes
-3 bay leaves, crumbled
-3 cinnamon sticks, crushed (I used a hammer... nothing like breaking out the tool box in the kitchen)

Mix all ingredients together and store in an airtight container.

Seriously, could it be any easier? Now, on to the pickle making....

I needed to use up the cukes I picked last weekend while helping out at Walker Jones Farm. Okay, I may have been suffering from greedy hand syndrome, I admitted while preparing the dozen regular and lemon cucumbers (those would be the round, yellow ones in the photo). I tell you they were just sitting there looking ripe and prickly and waiting to be pickled and I couldn't resist. Though Mike kindly loaned me Moshkov (formerly known as Boris) for my canning projects in coming weeks, it is just too darn hot out -- over 100 degrees! -- to steam up the basement apartment with a pressure cooker. So I started trolling the internet for refrigerator pickle (aka those that won't require boiling and processing) recipes. Here's what I made after cobbling together a few recipes for which I had most of the ingredients:

Easy Refrigerator Pickles

Combine in a large glass bowl or jar:
-6-10 cucumbers (depending on the size, you may want to slice or quarter them)
-2 C water
-1 3/4 C white vinegar
-1/2 C sugar
-8 cloves garlic (conveniently, I had some from my visit to cousin Caroline's farm)
-1 1/2 TBSP pickling spice (well, look at you, you've made your own!)
-1 1/2 tablespoons coarse salt

Stir, and let stand at room temperature for 2 hours, until the sugar and salt dissolve.
In clean jars, place:
-a sprig of dill (because these are pickles, after all)
-a grape leaf (whose tannins add crunch)
-a garlic clove
(because, really, 8 cloves wasn't enough)
-a hot pepper (optional, for the tough guys)

-cucumber pieces (as many as will fit)

Ladle the pickling liquid into each jar to cover cukes, topping off with a half-water/half-vinegar mixture if needed. Seal and refrigerate for 10 days before eating. Use within 1 month. (Oooh, these should be ready just in time for mom's retirement party next month. Score.)

BTW, a few folks have commented on how this blog seems a little recipe heavy these days. Well, can I help it if there's a ton of gorgeous produce this time of year waiting to be cooked and blogged about? No, no I can't. (Neither can I help this brutal weather pattern. Ugh. 100 degrees in the shade!) But I swear I've been writing about other stuff, too, just in other places. Places like the artsy, activisty new Bittersweet Zine. Don't worry, I'll get back to ranting about food justice and the lack of respect for bike lanes in DC soon enough....

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Lock your doors, zucchini season is here

A few years ago, I borrowed a copy of Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" from my friend Jeanne. I recall there being an amusing anecdote in it suggesting that the only time rural Southerners locked their doors was in the summer, at the height of zucchini season. Well. Though DC is a Southern town, I don't think I am in any danger of being reverse burgled with squashes. However, between friends at Arcadia and Walker Jones farms I do seem to have come into quite a lot of courgettes.
I love zucchini. Chef Allison over at DC Central Kitchen made a lovely "zucchini ribbons with lemon juice and mint" dish for a reception I volunteered at last week that I mean to replicate soon. A small crowd enjoyed some slightly charred baby zucchini at Henry's barbecue yesterday. I am still perfecting the chocolate zucchini cake recipe -- it's coming, I promise -- which I plan to bring to a dinner party next weekend. Tonight I thought I'd change things up a bit and fiddle with a zucchini soup recipe.
Now, you might think hot soup is the last thing one would want in July, but it gets rather cold in the basement apartment when the air conditioning is cranked to combat the summer heat upstairs, so a steaming bowl of soup was actually rather welcome this evening -- a satisfying but not overly heavy bowl of creamy goodness and a slab of sourdough were a nice calm meal after all of the excitement of this afternoon's barbecue and viewing of the FIFA women's final. Here's how you might whip up a batch yourself. (And incidentally, it's also good cold.)
Curried Zucchini Soup
Saute 2 small onions + 5-6 cloves of garlic in 1 tsp olive oil in a large pot on low for 5 minutes.
Chop 3-4 zucchini into thick coin slices -- it works out to, I dunno, 4 cups' worth -- and add to pot.
Sprinkle in some curry powder and cayenne powder (1/4-1/2 tsp each, depending on how spicy you like it) + a pinch or two of salt, stir, and turn the heat up to medium. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes, being sure zucchini is coated with spices.
Add in 5-6 cups of good veggie stock -- enough to cover zucchini -- then simmer for 20 minutes, until zucchini is soft.
Remove soup from the stovetop and puree in batches using a blender or food processor. Or use an immersion blender directly in the pot (as I did with one Mike loaned me, pictured above -- I need one of these for myself, I'm hooked). Then stir in 1-2 TBSP plain sour cream or whipping cream. (Yes, whipping cream. Not that stuff that comes in an aerosol can, I mean the good stuff.)
Serve in bowls with a couple grinds of black pepper and a slab of toasted sourdough bread. Yum.
My oh my, with all of this beautiful produce around, if I'm not careful this may turn into an all out cooking blog. Maybe it's time to get serious about a bikeable feast cookbook....

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

"Beet it" brownies

I helped out at Walker Jones Farm recently and pulled some beets to take home. Aren't they gorgeous?

Some people seem intimidated by these beautiful, magenta root vegetables and aren't quite sure what to do with them. Some are weirded out by the fact that it turns your pee kind of pinkish. Not me. Borscht, caramelized beet and goat cheese salad with walnuts, roasted beet and potato home fries... bring on the beets, I say. I recognize that some folks aren't huge beet fans. At least not yet. (Some folks were purportedly not kale fans until they tried my massaged kale salad, and yet just today I got two emails from folks that came to my chef demo last weekend at the Columbia Heights farmers' market thanking me for one of their new favorite recipes.) I'm just sayin': trust me here. I'm your friendly neighborhood food educator, I wouldn't lead you astray.

The word on the street is that President Obama doesn't like beets. Well, I'll bet he's never tried my chocolate beet brownies. Kids of all ages like 'em. In fact, I have a batch in the oven right now to bring to my neighbor Henry's barbecue this evening. The inspiration for the sneaky beet infusion comes from a conversation I had almost two years ago on my way through Madison, Wisconsin while I was yakking with one of the after school food educators over at Sherman Middle School. I was intrigued and begged her for the recipe, which she kindly sent along. Here's my adaptation (with less sugar and more roasted beets)....

"Beet It" Brownies

Wash and remove the greens from 3-4 small beets. Drizzle with a little olive oil, wrap in tin foil, and roast in a 400F oven until soft (about 40 minutes). Cool beets, then puree and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350F, then butter and flour a small (8" or 9") cake pan.

Melt 1 bar of good chocolate (3-4 oz). Set aside to cool.

In a small bowl, mix together:
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
a pinch of salt

In a large bowl, use a hand mixer (or a lot of elbow grease and a whisk) to beat until creamy:
6 TBSP butter (easier at room temperature)
1/4 cup brown sugar

Beat in:
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 eggs (at room temperature)

Stir in:
the beet puree
the melted chocolate
the flour mixture

Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes. Cool and serve.

Let me know if you all try this recipe, and if your guinea pigs...I mean guests...can guess the secret ingredient!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Oh come now, don't sound so surprised..."

"...I told you massaged kale salad was delicious!"
I found myself saying this quite often these past few days -- first during a cooking class with some (rather surly) high schoolers at the Lederer Youth Garden on Friday morning, then again during my shift as the resident chef at the Columbia Heights Community Marketplace on Saturday morning. Yep, that was me in the chef's tent. After two hours of crunching bowl after giant bowl of curly kale at the farmers' market with my bare hands, I'm surprised I could even flex my fingers by lunchtime. That just goes to show you how strong my muscles are from biking (death-gripping the brakes as Ollie and I fly screaming down the 13th Street hill) and gardening (ripping up tenacious weeds). And perhaps most of all from the flurry of sourdough bread baking of late (and ripping off hunks to slather in butter). All that kneading, wooh! Boy could I have used a massage myself after all of that, but alas....
It was intense, but fun and totally worth it. Quite a number of folks -- skeptical high schoolers, adventurous market shoppers, curious parents, even a local farmer or two -- were brave enough to try my concoction of kale, apples, red onion, slivered almonds, and cave aged feta. And they loved it. In fact, so many folks loved it that Dragonfly Farms sold out of kale within an hour, and I quickly ran through the photocopies of the recipe I had on me. I've heard from a number of folks via email requesting the surprisingly simple-yet-tasty and infinitely adaptable recipe in the days since. (Yes, I've apparently gone from giving out fake phone numbers at salsa clubs a year ago to handing out my email to total strangers at farmers' markets. I'm not sure what to make of that.)
For those who missed Saturday's market but have been wondering what all the hullabaloo about massaged kale is about, here's the recipe.
Let me know what you think. But just to give you fair warning: it's so good that a friend of mine told me of an incident a few months back where his significant other held him practically at knifepoint in the kitchen insisting that he make another batch after accidentally eating the leftover massaged kale salad she was planning to take for lunch. (Don't worry, it all worked out and they're getting married next month.)

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Monday, July 11, 2011


Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of Ollie's and my return to DC. What better way to mark the anniversary of my immersion into all things DC food than by devouring the first two ears of corn I've ever grown with my friend and fearless gardening pal, Mike! (Okay, maybe he's not entirely "fearless" -- he does lose a fair bit of sleep over fears that neighborhood rodents will abscond with the majority of our hard-earned produce. I about fell over laughing when he nearly burst a blood vessel while watching in horror as a horde of squirrels ran along the fenceline toting whole pears bigger than their heads in their mouths the other day. Wooh, that was a funny gardening day.) It's hard to get more local than a friend's back yard less than 2 miles from my apartment. And boy was it delicious.

In spite of my parents' concerns about this rather challenging and unpredictable life pursuit -- food education, that is -- it's been a good year overall. There have been some pretty extreme ups and downs in both personal and professional life with equal measures of triumph and heartbreak, but luckily I've managed to surround myself with lots of good food in the garden and on the table, and caring friends and family. And I'm working on a number of cool projects these days. Yes, in addition to perfecting my recipe for chocolate zucchini cake (coming soon...).

Anyhow, I just wanted to take a moment to mark the momentous occasion... of eating my first home grown corn. Here's hoping that this next year will provide lots of opportunities for (gainful) food education work. And lots more fresh, homegrown corn... Yum.

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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Substitute Cheesemonger

A number of months ago, I interviewed for a full-time cheesemongering position at a local shop that will remain nameless (but which I have boycotted ever since they didn't bother to call and let me know whether or not I got the job -- jerks). But today I got to flex my dairy selling muscles as a pinch-hitter for Keswick Creamery at the White House farmers' market. The Pennsylvania-based dairy has some top-notch stuff, so with a little advice from Allison and I helping folks to select the right cheese for their needs, it practically sold itself.

Sure, it was hot as heck today, but we hid in the shade of the tent with the cheeses on ice, and as I did my best to mask the fact that I was standing in a pool of my own sweat I advised folks as best I could. Oh, you're making an omelet with spinach and tomato? Well, I'd advise the Herbed Feta. Taste. Taste. Sweat. Taste. Drink water. Smile. Hmm, now you say you're looking for something mild and spreadable? I'd recommend the plain Bovre. Yes, it's a pasteurized cow's milk cheese, but similar to chevre. Well, it's made with a yoghurt culture, so it's just a little bit tangy. Taste. Drink water. Taste. Sweat. Smile. Oh, you like spicy? Well, try the Dragon's Breath. Oh, just you wait, tough guy, the burn will sneak up on you. Mmm hmmm. See? Drink water. Sweat. Smile. Well, lucky you, you've bought the last Quark. Did you try it with the cherry almond jam? Yes, it's delicious. And the gentleman a few tents down is selling it, so you can recreate this taste in your very own home. I daresay we did rather well, Allison and I.

Let me tell you, it is crucial to taste all of the cheese to be a well-informed cheesemonger. In any case, I learned quite a bit about Dutch and German cheeses during the 4-hour shift, and met all kinds of characters. One of the bonuses of working at farmers' markets, I'm finding, is the camaraderie among vendors who cheerfully share their wares, and we feasted on not only cheese samples but also sweet plums from the Toigo Orchards' stand on our right, crusty french bread from the Panorama Bakery stand on our left, and a delectable cilantro and sweet corn pizza from the Red Zebra stand across the way. Yum. (If only I'd thought to put cilantro on pizza! Brilliant!) I'm just bummed that I forgot to buy a pint of Keswick's luscious chocolate pudding, especially with the 25% vendor discount. Doh. Ah, well, I'm still pretty well fed for the evening.

Oh my, it looks like it's time to get ready for bed. I have to get up at a reasonable hour to teach a cooking class to a group of teenagers out at the Lederer Youth Garden tomorrow and something tells me I'm going to need my rest....

Oh, and that picture? That's my fearless co-saleswoman, Allison. See, now don't you suddently have an irresistible desire to buy a jar of savory, marinated feta (with garlic, peppercorns, and bay leaf) for the low, low price of $6?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Garlic on the brain (and in the blood)

With the last of the fireworks exploding and the final dishes washed for the night, I'm snuggled up in the guest room at cousin Caroline's on this 4th of July. It's a beautiful cool, clear evening, and tired as I am -- and early as I need to wake up tomorrow to catch a series of rides to get myself home again (5am? Really? I'd gone *to* bed later than that back at the height of my salsa dancing days) -- I find I have a lot on my mind. As usual, my visit to the 3rd-generation farm tucked up in the Poconos has reminded me of how rewarding (oh, the food!) as well as how challenging (grow, dammit!) sustainable farming can be. Take this year's garlic crop....

Unlike the drought much of the country has been facing, poor Gary and Caroline have been battling constant rain here in rural PA. At one point yesterday morning, just after another crack of thunder followed by pouring rain, we started joking about growing rice here instead. Lord knows the ground has been wet enough these past few months. I believe this is when we were tying up the previous day's harvest of braiding (softneck) garlic in the barn. A bit later, fearing that another bout of rain would surely result in root rot overtaking the bulk of the main crop if we left it in the ground much longer, we all trudged around in rubber boots and silly hats and jackets and pulled up some of the porcelain hardneck variety. Too small. Shoot.

Plants need rain to grow, sure, but they also need lots of sunshine. Allium crops all over the region are stunted and behind schedule because of the freak weather patterns, we learned from Gary's series of conversations with other farmers in the area. With one's main cash crop prone to rotting amid excessive moisture, what is an heirloom garlic farmer to do with 12,000 heads in the ground? Harvest too-small bulbs? Risk disease while waiting for the sun to show its face and encourage the plants to grow to normal size? Frankly, it's kind of a crapshoot, and I wonder how farmers aren't nervous wrecks.

(Another sign that I'm not cut out to be a farmer: I almost lost my cool after accidentally ripping three or four softneck garlic plants in a row while trying to pull them the other day. I had to go pick some raspberries -- conveniently located at the edge of the garlic field -- and scarf a few handfuls before I managed to calm down. Bah. Who wants braiding garlic anyway?) At least we pulled in a decent load during Saturday afternoon's harvest, when we had a bit of sunshine, but really, this weather has got to stop.

It's not all doom and gloom. I mean, they eat well. (Consider tonight's grilled venison, cilantro soup, roasted potatoes, and strawberry rhubarb bars.) And the small CSA seems to be going well, with diversified crops and maple syrup picked up weekly by their 7 shareholders. And there should be some sunshine this week (when, alas, the extra hands to help harvest will be back at their day jobs in New York and DC). If there's one thing I can say about Gary and Caroline, it's that they don't give up. Sure, there are losses and frustrations and (somewhat frequent) changes of plan, but they're still growing some beautiful, delicious stuff up here at Mountaindale Farms. And if the final crop is anywhere near as tasty as what I sampled tonight -- in the form of roasted, dark-chocolate-covered garlic and a post-dinner shot of youth-preserving "garple elixir" -- I think everything will turn out alright.

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