Monday, June 27, 2011

Too hot to garden? There are other ways to be active...

DC is a political town. There are at least three protests or marches every weekend (and I know this because tourists clog both streets and metro trains every weekend and talk about their causes rather more loudly than necessary). It seems to happen every time I leave my apartment. Yes, it's nearly impossible to avoid political engagement in these parts, but it is the nation's capital and so it -- like the plethora of free museums -- comes with the territory.

Now, I'll be honest, summer weather can be a little brutal -- whose idea was it to build this city in a swamp, anyway? -- and schlepping around with clipboards collecting signatures or waiting to see your representative can wear a politically active citizen out. But fear not: you can be an activist without leaving the comfort of your living room. Um. Er. I mean home office. Here are a few things that lovers of food access, bicycling, and empowerment might like to support by virtual means:

Act Locally

Make the DC Dept of Transportation accountable to their pledge to increase and improve bicycle lanes in the city. (Seriously, between aggressive traffic and potholes, I almost died about five times on my ride out to ECO City Farm last Thursday; once I hit the Anacostia River Trail System I was golden, but how about some more east-west bike lanes, DC?) I've definitely noticed a marked uptick in bike lane use (by cyclists as well as by cars, grrr) even just in the past year since my return.

With one online form you can send an email to the Mayor, the director and bicycle coordinator of the DDOT, and Tommy Wells (the Ward 6 councilman) and urge them to push for bike lanes along L and M streets downtown. Thanks, WABA, for helping us advocate for a more bike-friendly city!

Act Nationally

Save SNAP (aka food stamp) benefits in danger of being cut as part of the Deficit Reduction Plan. Thanks to the DC Hunger Solutions/Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) website, it's as easy as sending an email or calling your senator (if you have one, ahem). The letter that you can sign -- or edit, if you're a former English teacher like me (what, I can't help myself) -- urges the president to reduce the deficit in ways that won't increase poverty. You know, a little responsible policy making. (Those of you who followed the passing of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act may recall the bittersweet victory that funded improved school food while slashing SNAP benefits. And speaking of bittersweet....)

Act Globally

Perhaps you are more of a "pocketbook activist" -- yes, I just coined a term -- an online shopper who likes to put her money where her values are. Well, then you'll want to check out some of the items offered via Bittersweet -- a local group I've become somewhat enamored with recently. They are putting out a quarterly magazine focused on DC's most pressing social issues, but they also serve as an online outlet for responsibly produced goods from socially conscious groups around the world. (Not cheap, but very cool.) One thing that captured my attention in Bittersweet Zine's winter 2010/2011 issue on economic empowerment was the micro-loan gift cards. (Darn it, I can't find a link to this issue online, but you can go to the Opportunity International website.) If you're on the lookout for a cool birthday gift for a friend or family member, consider giving them a gift card to support a small-scale entrepreneur of their choice.

Speaking of Bittersweet Zine, keep your eyes peeled for their upcoming issue, featuring an article by yours truly on food communities in DC.... (Don't worry, mom and dad, I'll be sure to send you a copy.)

Friday, June 24, 2011

The stinking rose (or lily, rather)

It seems that I have successfully grown my first batch of garlic, and boy is it beautiful. I've got about 6 or 7 heads curing (aka drying) as they hang from the edge of my pot rack right now, and there are at least a dozen more that will be pulled over the next couple of weeks.

While scouring the back yard for signs of future vegetables these past few weeks, I've been checking on my inaugural planting of garlic (started this past autumn). Every few days as I wander out past the garden I see another plant leaning over, calling out to be harvested. And just in time: I'm just at the end of my stash of stinky lilies from cousin Caroline! I'll be making a trip out to her farm next weekend, and can hopefully stock up a bit as I help Caroline and Gary with their annual garlic harvest; I've only grown about 20 heads of my own, mostly Polish heirloom white softneck variety.

Did you know that garlic and onions are in the same family as lilies? A number of years ago, while living in Brooklyn, I recall making a luscious "four lily soup" with garlic, vidalia onions, red onions, and shallots. I believe it was in Gourmet Magazine (R.I.P.) and Nick and I made a quadruple batch. Boy was it good....

For those of you who have never planted it before, garlic is easy. Foolproof, almost. (Famous last words, right?) Dad, back me up here: isn't garlic the easiest thing you've ever planted? In the fall, you simply take a head of (preferably organic) garlic, break it into cloves, and stick the cloves into the ground, about 6 or 8 inches apart, about 2 inches deep, and cover it with soil. No need to peel the cloves or anything. Each clove grows into a head of garlic. It's almost like magic. They grow through the winter and spring with very little maintenance, and by early summer you get a delicious garlic scape to feast on, then in mid-summer the plants dry out and fall over to let you know they're ready for harvest. Pull 'em out of the ground, hang 'em up for a few weeks to dry, and then get cooking. It's that easy. Thanks to Becky for introducing me to this most rewarding and simple of growing instructions at her home in Montreal during my little bikeable feast side-trip from Burlington two summers ago.

(Holy cow, has it really been almost two years since I was biking through Vermont? Yikes.)

BTW, the title of this post was inspired by a restaurant I ate at in San Francisco a number of years ago: The Stinking Rose (which should have been named The Stinking Lily, but the all-garlic-themed dishes were tasty, so who am I to point out technicalities?).

I'll be experimenting with dark chocolate covered roasted garlic again soon. Watch out, Dracula.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Operation: pollination

I've been diligently checking on garden developments a few times a day for the past few weeks: when I water in the morning, as I head out for a meeting or errand and again when I return from said meeting or errand, sometimes even on my way back from dinner or a beer with a friend in the evening. For the past month, in spite of an abundance of lush, leafy foliage and a proliferation of bright yellow, inviting blossoms and the presence of a variety of winged, pollen-spreading insects, I've seen nary a sign of fertilization. Come on, plants, it's mid-June already! (If one more person reminds me that patience is a virtue....)

But I've exciting news, faithful readers: I came home two days ago to discover a few of my multitude of hopeful blossoms had been successfully pollinated! Exactly one tomato and two squash buds had the early telltale bulges forming beneath wilted flowers. The fruits of these labors should be ready for harvest in a couple of months. (I'm guessing sometime in mid-August, right around the time my friend Meghan is due with her first child. We'll both be proud moms! Of course my progeny will probably end up in a salad.) Incidentally, all three of these successful plant sexual encounters occurred in the unplanned section of the garden -- volunteer seeds sprouted from my compost.

Seems my garden has become a hotbed for illicit plant activity. Now if only my timid cucumbers could learn a few things from their lascivious cucurbit relatives....

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Stay in your lane


(And are those parking meters along the 15th Street bike lane?? What the...?)

This is hardly the first time I've seen cars parked in bike lanes in the District. The bike lane on 14th Street is a regular double-parking extravaganza up near U Street and Columbia Heights. It's like someone's constantly throwing a party where people sit in their cars, parked NEXT TO empty parking spaces. Yes, there are legitimate parking spaces right next to them that they are not using. (I can't decide if this trend is driven by malice or idiocy.)

At least twice I've seen people actually DRIVING in the cordoned off 15th Street bike lanes, usually yapping on their cell phones and maneuvering some kind of SUV. The second time that happened, Ollie and I pulled up next to a guy who turned out to be a city DOT worker (!!) who actually told me there was nowhere else he could park to check the meter installation process. (Guess the two driveways within 50 yards of where we were having the conversation would not have worked, eh?)

I am not an angry cyclist. Ask anyone. I'm usually smiling at fellow bikers and pedestrians, and my general practice is to move out of the way at stop lights so cars can turn right on red. I've only twice (audibly) shouted at drivers in DC -- both of those times were when I was nearly run over in a crosswalk when they weren't paying attention. But some 4-wheel operators these days... I have half a mind to get some stickers printed up to slap on bike-lane-ignoring cars as I pass them: "Stay in your lane."

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Out of the kitchen, into the market

Since my return from Nebraska, it seems like most of my waking hours have been spent gardening and perusing farmers' markets. Now that we're coming into the height of the growing season, it seems that there is a farmers' market (or two) nearly every day of the week. My favorite market stop of the week was on Thursday: my first ever visit to the Penn Quarter market, where I had been asked to photograph the first Brainfood student market demo -- something of a sneak preview of Brainfood's exciting second-year program starting next fall, which focuses on peer-led food education and outreach. (How cool is that??)

Ollie and I rolled up just as the students were arriving, so I had a chance to chitchat a bit with everyone before the enticing aroma of sauteing onions and garlic scapes drew the masses over to the information tent where the cooking demonstration was taking place. On offer: free samples of fried rice featuring fresh, seasonal ingredients chopped on site. I watched in awe as the high school students minced, stirred, tasted, and dished up one batch after another of the savory concoction. (And of course I tried a plate of it myself. I mean, Brainfood sessions always end with the sharing of food. I don't want to break protocol.)

There was not a trace of nervousness that I could detect among the group of friendly, confident youth. Not that I'm surprised: Amy and Carina are amazing teachers and offered the usual encouragement and measured guidance as students took the lead. They looked on proudly as their proteges spoke with folks of all ages about the ease of the recipe and its infinite adaptability, explaining the technique and pointing out different ingredients. These students, some of whom were pretty new to cooking less than a year ago, were cooking and talking with passers-by like old pros. I must say I was impressed. So were the market shoppers who tarried for a few minutes to sample and ask questions. One woman, coming home from her shift at the Department of Transportation, commented on how quick and easy and tasty the recipe was. "I mean, I can make this in about 10 minutes and my son will get a ton of healthy vegetables! I think he'll like this," she smiled as she finished up her sample. (Yep, and the eggs lend a bit of protein, too, I couldn't help but volunteer.) "I'm going to go pick up some eggs and carrots right now."

Yes, the fried rice was easy and tasty. It's pretty inexpensive and you can make a whole bunch of it at once (which, if you're on the kind of budget that I am on these days, is a huge bonus). Inspired, I made an enormous pot of it for a potluck barbecue with my ultimate frisbee teammates two days later. There were some rave reviews. Here's a slightly adapted version of the Brainfood recipe, which serves 12....

Farmers Market Brown Fried Rice

Heat 1 TBSP peanut oil (or olive oil) in a large pan, then add 8 eggs (beaten) and cook until eggs are set. Remove from pan and cut into strips.

Heat 5 TBSP peanut oil (or olive oil) in the pan, add 2 onions (peeled, small dice) and saute on medium heat until translucent (5 mins or so), then stir in:

- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced (or 1 thinly sliced garlic scape)
- 1-2 tsp fresh ginger, peeled and minced
- 1 cup mushrooms, sliced
- 1 cup asparagus, thinly sliced
- 3/4 cup green onions, thinly sliced
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded, small dice
- 1/2 cup carrots, small dice

Cook for 5 mins longer, then stir in:

- 3 tsp sea salt
- 6 cups brown rice, cooked (ideally cooked the day before and stored in fridge overnight)
- the cooked eggs
- 6 TBSP sesame oil or olive oil
- 14 TBSP shoyu (soy sauce) or Dr. Bragg's liquid aminos
- 6 TBSP mirin (rice vinegar)
- 1 tsp ground pepper (to taste)

Heat until warm, then serve and devour with friends.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Support DC's urban growers!

Hello, dear readers. I'm writing to you today with a call for help on behalf of my urban farming and community gardening friends here in the District. The Field to Fork Network is trying to raise some funds to get a collaborative market stand up and running this growing season. The goal: promoting healthy eating and community engagement at a number of markets around the city. (It's a project after my own heart, to be sure.) A number of groups we visited along the DC urban farms bike tour are involved, and a few that were not able to be included this time around. (As it was we had five stops!) Some of my favorites from around the city, many of whom have been working on food access and education for years, are coming together to make this project happen: the Neighborhood Farm Initiative, Beet Street, Washington Youth Garden, City Blossoms, Bread for the City.

Yes, it's a Kickstarter campaign... something with which I am intimately familiar. In this case, the funds will kickstart the project with funds to purchase needed supplies and materials, which will in turn allow the Field to Fork urban food educators and growers to operate small market booths. It also includes a modest stipend to fund a market coordinator to keep all of the necessary ducks in a row and get the systems in place for future -- hopefully expanded -- market seasons. They're looking to raise funds for the following, but if you (or someone you know) can donate any of these items, it'll help the group out immensely: tables, tents, scales, banners, chairs, calculators, camping stoves (probably my weathered beercan stove will not suffice, alas), cooking supplies. There's a bit set aside for educational materials and transportation as well, but $4,000 is a drop in the bucket when you consider all of the public good coming out of this. Actually, here's the video so you can see for yourself what they have in mind:

Now, people, they only have 30 hours left to raise the remaining $820 of their $4,000 goal to get things off the ground. Help an urban farmer out, eh?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Perspire under the elms

Due to some recent changes to my employment status, I have significantly more time on my hands of late. As such, I have spent the past couple of weeks catching up with those people and activities I was forced to neglect during my 4-month tenure with Arcadia: friends, family, writing, gardening, dancing, and going on bicycle adventures. Most of this has taken place around The District, but I had the good fortune to spend the past week visiting my friend Nathan on his family's farm -- the only organic plot for hundreds of miles -- tucked away below stands of cottonwood and elm in the windy southwestern corner of Nebraska.

While farm laboring wasn't my primary reason for visiting -- among his many fine qualities, my gentleman friend is a fantastic cook and salsa dancer and it was high time we spent some time together tackling the NY Times crossword puzzles (and it *was* the tail end of morel season) -- I couldn't help myself when the inevitable outdoor activities got underway each day. Planting, weeding, laying irrigation line, mulching, watering, and, my favorite, harvesting. ("One asparagus spear for me, one for the soup....") Needless to say, we spent quite a bit of time in the kitchen, and the culinary highlight of the trip was a fairly authentic Coq au Vin made from scratch. While the dish did not feature the usual french wine, we made up for the omission with the inclusion of multiple bottles of a tasty red zinfandel, a hefty handful of morels, and two rather bothersome roosters that Nathan and his brother Brian butchered themselves on Wednesday night. True, the two-year-old birds were a bit tough, but, oh, that sauce! Such flavor! And you'd better believe I made a giant pot of stock with the leftover carcasses. You know, for the creamy asparagus soup. And some chicken soup. And a big pot of risotto. (Well, I couldn't let it go to waste.) I had a chance to sleep in the following morning without that 5am cockadoodledoing, which was another side perk....

I've never been to Nebraska before. I was equally alarmed by the lack of food options in local grocery stores as by the bounty and variety of food grown on the windblown farm where I was staying. [No, seriously, that wind is like nothing I've ever seen. The gales were so intense I half expected a tornado to form during the latter part of Monday's barbecue. I don't know how the little bitty baby bok choy that we'd planted the day before were still in the ground.] Nathan's mom has quite the green thumb and was definitely in the lead during much of my time at the homestead -- planting and weeding and directing various menfolk on where to rototill -- but it was her son who decided last year to start a small CSA on the property. The brother who started the project left town, disgruntled, near the end of the first growing season, but there was enough demand among their neighbors that Rylan and a few other members of the family decided to continue, even expanding a bit. In its second year, Green Elms Community Farm is offering 10 shares of tasty, organic produce plus pastured eggs from their hens, if folks want, and potentially mushrooms as well, if Brian's winecap growing scheme proves fruitful. (Personally, I think Nathan should offer beer shares -- his homebrews are darn tasty, and they are growing hops -- but for now production is limited to family-only consumption levels. But imagine: a beer CSA! I'd sign up.) Yep, community supported agriculture is growing in some of the most unexpected places. I mean, rural Nebraska??

Okay, well, I'm just now back in DC. Guess it's time to get unpacked and do some laundry (after a *very* thorough check of all clothing and body parts following my week in Tickland). Stay tuned for posts on other small organic produce operations starting up, including a collaborative market stand with offerings from DC's urban growing spaces....