Archive for September, 2011

Blue potatoes and candy cane beets: The odyssey of an heirloom

Last weekend I made a big pot of Borscht, as I do at least once every year. I use the recipe from the original Moosewood cookbook, and it’s pretty much my favorite soup ever. They should call it “Root Veggie (plus Cabbage) Delight.”

Blue potatoes and candy cane beets

But my love of Borscht is not why I’m writing this post. This post came to fruition because I used a few new ingredients in the Borscht this year. Nothing wild and crazy, just blue potatoes and candy cane beets. That’s right. BLUE potatoes and CANDY CANE beets. I promise you, I am not making these up.

You see, in our current agricultural system we grow very few of the crops once available and cultivated by humans around the planet. I recently finished reading an article in the July 2011 issue of National Geographic called “Food Ark,” which discussed a number of issues around seed varieties which have been lost and many which have been saved through the hard work of concerned individuals across the globe. Even still, the number of beets varieties commercially available has gone from 288 to 17 in the last one hundred years. Lettuce has gone from 497 varieties to just three dozen in the same period of time. And the case of dwindling options goes on – this chart gives a stark visual of the seed situation.

Many of these types of crops, as well as livestock, which are not seen in large scale farming, are referred to as “heirlooms.” Most were developed by local communities to suit the growing conditions of the area, and were subsequently saved by generation after generation. Because these seeds belong to families and communities, they are hard to patent, thus a very important aspect of heirlooms. Food sovereignty. Most of the world’s seeds are “owned” by a select few companies – something I personally think should be illegal – and these heirloom varieties are an important part of maintaining all people’s right to food.

Some people will try to tell you that heirlooms are “genetically inferior” and “only alive for nostalgia’s sake,” but it simply isn’t true. Sure, not all heirlooms can be grown everywhere, to a certain extent that defeats part of the purpose of heirlooms, but many of them have traits (pest and disease resistance, as well as drought or flood tolerance) which make them much stronger in certain regions than the commercial, monocrop varieties most of us buy at the grocery store. In addition, the taste of many heirlooms is absolutely superb. Heirlooms generally don’t do well over long distance travel, there has been no reason to breed that trait into them, as there has been with most large-scale varieties. But many commercial varieties have gained “shipability” and shelf life at the cost of flavor, something that those of us who appreciate good tasting food, in addition to high quality food, appreciate.

This summer, I was involved with three gardens. Our staff garden at work, the community garden at Cottageville Park and a shared garden with a friend, each of which contained several heirlooms. We tried the Cylindra Beet and Envy Soya Beans (edamame) from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. A friend donated squash, okra and lettuce varieties from Seed Savers Exchange. The plethora of tomato seedlings we planted in the three gardens this year were almost all heirlooms; some of my favorites have names like Stump of the World, Pruden’s Purple, Orange Strawberry, Black Cherry, KBX and Paul Robeson (many of which came from my friend at Norsejenta’s Seedlings). Our peppers came in a fantastic array of shapes, sizes and colors; highlights include Bulgarian Carrot and Cayenne, both scorchingly hot, and Lipstick and Gypsy, two sweet treats I’ll be repeating in the future.

All in all, I think this was one of the most diverse and colorful gardens I’ve ever been proud to grow. There are many options for buying both seeds and seedlings. So next spring, as you begin to plan your garden, consider heirlooms, you may just find your new favorites.


September 26, 2011 at 11:56 pm 3 comments

What eggs you, my dear?

Aside from cheese, eggs are the reason I couldn’t be a vegan (at least not by choice). They are just so tasty and make lots of things amazing.

That said, there are a lot of things in the egg world that aren’t so lovely. And I’m not talking about salmonella. No, I’m talking about “sweat shop eggs,” as my husband calls them. You know, the ones that are perfectly white and uniform which come from chickens in tiny cages (the EU and UK call them “battery cages“). The ones produced by hens with clipped beaks and few feathers.

I know, not exactly what you’re hoping to think of as you sit down to a breakfast of eggs and toast, but I think this is an issue that eaters need to take seriously.

In an effort to not dwell on the horror stories you can get on any animal rights webpage, I’d like to tell you about where I get my eggs and why. My egg man’s name is Tim. He works in the city, but raises some beautiful hens who lay the most egg-cellent eggs you could imagine (sorry, couldn’t resist). Tim raises his chickens without hormones or antibiotics, though they are not certified organic. They dine on bugs. They scratch in the dirt. Their eggs range from small to HUGE! One hen Tim referred to once as “Big Red” lays the most gigantic eggs I’ve ever seen from a chicken. Occasionally, I get a double yolk. Once I even got one with NO yolk! (Yes, it’s real, and humorously referred to as a “fart” egg. Look it up for more info.) The last dozen I got, the yolks were so orange, my husband asked if I’d added some sort of spice to the scrambled eggs to make them so dark. Most weeks the shells are a mix of white and various shades of brown, and when the Araucanas are laying, they’re even green! Oh, and did I mention he delivers the eggs to me and my co-workers at our office? All this for only $2.50 a dozen. Best local food deal I ever found.

Some weeks I miss the egg order and have to get a dozen at the store. The tricky thing at the grocery store is the labels. I’m sure you’ve noticed what I’m talking about. Organic, natural, cage-free, free-roaming, hormone free, no antibiotics, cruelty free and the list goes on. Many of these terms are almost completely unregulated. The worst in my book – natural. Arsenic and lead are “natural” my friends and you would not want them in your breakfast burrito. Even the most regulated of the terms, like “organic” is not always straightforward. As the fine folks at the Cornucopia Institute have found, not all organic brands are created equal. Some “organic” eggs are questionable in how much of the spirit of organic they actually follow. Is an antibiotic free egg really what you want if the chicken was still debeaked and raised in a barn with 10,000 other hens? A very helpful resource I would encourage you to check out is the Organic Egg Scorecard. The unfortunate thing you’ll find is that organic eggs sold as store brands are often some of the worst offenders (the same is also very true for dairy).

Ultimately, I know it is not possible for everyone to know a Tim, but for me, eggs are not something to be taken lightly. I want to know more than a label can tell me. I want to know what “cage free” really means. I want to hear about “Big Red” and how things are going for the person who raises her. I want to build that relationship of trust, because that is what really makes food safe.

September 12, 2011 at 11:07 pm 3 comments

Happy as pie

I love baking pies. I find them to be the most satisfying creations to pull out of the oven. Cookies are fun, but easily overdone. Sweet bread is comforting, but substitutions have often led to gooey middles and disappointment. But pies, well, pies are pies, and as of yet, I’ve yet to bake one I didn’t like.

I think part of the reason I like pies so much is, at least for me, they offer opportunities for a lot more creativity than other baking. I’ve found a crust recipe (kind of a mix of several) which I really like and usually use for both sweet and savory. Beyond that, it’s all up to my imagination as to how the pie will end up. Generally speaking, I’m talking fruit pies, but I’ve got a few other fun ones I like to pull out especially around the winter holidays (Frozen Pumpkin Mousse Pie, anyone? Note: I make my own pumpkin puree, much tastier than canned.)

Tonight the fruits were peaches and strawberries. The peaches are from the order I made from a chemical-free grower in Washington, and the strawberries were picked by my mom, my husband and myself on Saturday at my favorite organic PYO (pick you own) farm called Sam Kedem Nursery and Garden, in Hastings, Minnesota.

The recipe I used was pretty basic: 

1 cup sugar (I used about half this)
1/3 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons lemon juice
3 cups sliced strawberries
3 cups sliced peaches

MY NOTES: Per the idea of another baker, I opted to not mix the fruit, but put the strawberries in the middle, surrounded by the peaches. For the crust, I had a homemade one frozen, so that made things pretty easy. I decided not to do a complete top crust, but instead some crust art, inspired by searching for top crust alternatives. This gave the pie a bright and beautiful look that almost makes me not want to cut it. But seriously, who am I kidding? Because if I didn’t cut it, I couldn’t do the thing I love best about pies – eating them!

September 6, 2011 at 12:47 am Leave a comment

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