Friday, May 29, 2009

The Veggie Queen Hears Jonah Raskin Speak on Farmers

For many years, I have wanted to meet Jonah Raskin who is a Sonoma County writer and professor at Sonoma State University. When I read that he would have a booksigning last night at a local Copperfield's bookstore, I knew that I had to go. Raskin has lived in Sonoma County for many years and he grew up near my hometown on Long Island. It turns out that his father, like mine, was an attorney. Unlike my parents, his moved to Occidental, here in Sonoma County, and started farming in retirement.
Raskin and I have a similar love of the land and writing but he took his passion and went out into the fields as fodder for his new book Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating, and Drinking Wine in California published by University of California Press.

I cannot tell you exactly why I didn't buy the book but I didn't so I will have to give you highlights of what Raskin had to say instead.

He made his war cry, Follow the vegetables. He worked at Oak Hill Farm in Glen Ellen, in Sonoma Valley for a year. He then followed chef John McReynolds' formerly of Cafe La Haye in Sonoma to see what he did with the vegetables. Raskin says that McReynolds is a spontaneous cook, which his editor did not believe. If you've seen me at work in person, you can likely tell that McReynold's and I have something in common in the spontaneity department. I often can't follow the recipe that I have right in front of me. That's not what cooking is about -- especially not with fresh vegetables.

Raskin implored everyone to grow, and buy, their vegetables organically even if they aren't certified.

While working at Oak Hill Farm where you'll find the Red Barn store, on spectacular piece of land, Raskin mentioned to owner Anne Teller that everything is connected. That's when he was told about "The Web of Life." I hope that you know about this concept and take it to heart. Everything you do has an effect on the world.

Raskin talked about his toiling in the field with the other farm workers and how he felt initiated into a tribe as they planted 6000 leeks in a day. He said that even though the work was physically hard, that it's harder to sit at a computer and work.

For you writers, rather than write the proposal for the book, Raskin wrote the entire book. He said that it would be easier. But he has quite a few other books under his belt and an editor who must like him. You likely know that I am into self-publishing so the proposal stage is something that I also skip.

The book contains a chapter on older farmers, one of whom is an amazing person that I see from time to time: Chester Aaron, author and garlic farmer. Chester is upwards of 85 and incredibly sharp. He's still farming and writing. I'd love to get my hands on some of Chester's amazing garlic -- he grows about 90 different kinds. Older farmers love what they do, maybe because they are in touch with the earth. Raskin says that they work until the end. What a nice thought.

If you are interested in farming, farmers, eating, drinking, and living, you might find this book a good read. With piles of books awaiting my attention, I couldn't bring myself to get one more on a subject about which I know a lot, and places that I have been for years. I applaud Raskin for taking on the subject and finding that it filled him up in a way that other things might not have.

Please, once again I implore you to pay homage to farmers. We need them for our sustenance.
The greens in the photo above (amazing Dinosaur or Lacinata kale) were grown by Raskin's friend Tom Pringle, who says that he's transforming from gardener to sharecropping farmer. I'll update you on that when I can.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Spring Farmer's Markets in Sonoma County

This weekend I went to 2 farmer's markets: one in Santa Rosa on Saturday, the other in Sebastopol on Sunday. I don't often do this but on Saturday I led a group of 4 through the market to buy ingredients for their private cooking class. I was happy to do this, which turned to thrilled when J. one of the tour group said that he's lived in the area for 40 years but had never been to the market. That's a symphony to my ears.

It was luckily a slow market day due to overcast weather, which made it easier to peruse the stalls and traverse the aisles. We have reached spring abundance and I was able to get everything on my list and more. (I did this by showing up about a half hour before our 9 am meeting just to be on the safe side and snagging some locally grown organic strawberries and asparagus.) I didn't have garlic scapes (the curly part of green garlic that will eventually form a flower), baby artichokes or squash blossoms on the list but we had those. And in addition to a bunch of spring kale (a different variety than the regular curly-type), we were also able to get broccoli rabe for our greens sauteed with garlic. The Spring Surprise Saute had a great mix of spring onions, leeks, asparagus, sugar snap peas and a variety of summer squash, which just appeared in the past week. I would have added cilantro to the mix but didn't want to get into who loves and who hates cilantro.

The menu for the day included Creamy Asparagus Soup (which in my book is Creamy Spinach Soup but I say that you can use the formula for almost any vegetable and asparagus is a favorite), Salad with Balsamic Strawberry Dressing (this is a take off of my Sweet Summer Super Salad), Marinated and Baked Tempeh, Quinoa Pilaf with Mushrooms, and the previously mentioned Greens with Garlic and Spring Surprise Saute. I had so much fun leading the group through the cooking. Miraculously, as we were finishing up the dishes and plating, the sun came out and the group headed outside for an amazing lunch. J. loved the tempeh which was a big surprise and S. loved the quinoa, as she'd never had it before.

Taking a group to the market meant that I couldn't really shop for myself so yesterday I went to Sebastopol ready for my weekly vegetable foray. When I saw the Laguna Vegetable stand with their amazingly sweet carrots, I knew that it was going to be an amazing day there. They also had sugar snap peas and young white Tokyo turnips, with great looking tops which I had the young man remove immediately and put into the bag. BIG TIP HERE: You want to remove the tops of all root vegetables right away as they breathe through the tops. Both roots and leaves will stay fresher this way. Everything else looked great, too, but I was moving on.

I stopped to speak to Paul of Paul's Smoked Salmon for a bit. He's a great guy and we have some good laughs together even about serious subjects such as his mother's recent passing. I love people who have a sense of humor, and he's one of them.

As I walked through the market, I got to say hello to people I know and chat with people that I've never met. It's a warm and friendly place. I guess that it's because everyone is happy to be outside, even if it's not sunny, buying produce, flowers and local goods. This is a huge departure from what it must feel like to buy vegetables at the local supermarket, which I try to avoid.

I ended up buying beautiful long beets (about which they didn't know the variety) but didn't want the greens and asked them to give them to pass them along to someone who wants them. I hadn't even left the stand when a woman walked up and asked how much for beet greens. She was handed the bag of my greens. FREE. Now, that is sheer joy, in my book.

I had more than one conversation with a farmer about stores that carry local produce and the small degree to which it really happens. I said that we need to rethink the system and figure out something that works better for all. (I still love my idea of teaching gardening and cooking to all, for FREE. If you know of any companies who might want to throw money at this, just let me know.) Regional food supplies are a good way to start changing things. Maybe each neighborhood has a community garden or group of growers or who knows what?

Dan Kahane (of Graton Greens, or at least that's what I think that his farm is called) and I were about talking about the motto, "reduce, reuse and recycle", and how we might want to add rethink. I told him that means that we have to get more people thinking in the first place. I know you are, and hope that you will work on continuing the conversation with those that you know. Each one of us has the ability to influence change.

I am now going to cook something for a block party this afternoon. Still wondering which of these vegetables I want to use: beets, asparagus, turnips, English peas, sugar snap peas, torpedo onions, garlic scapes, green garlic, summer squash, red romaine lettuce, salad mix and cilantro. I also have organic strawberries, cherries, peaches and nectarines. It may just turn out to be Spring Surprise Salad today. Only time will tell.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Where Have I Been? Let's See...

I have been busy. Took 2 trips to New York to see my Dad who isn't doing well at all. He was incredibly productive until a few months ago and then things started to go wrong -- very wrong. I won't go into details but suffice it to say that I will repeat what my mom says, "We are often kinder to our animals at the end of life, than we are to people." So, while we are living, let's live well. That means staying healthy. And the best way to do that is to eat your vegetables -- lots of them everyday.

I'll take this post to report about some interesting eating spots while away. Next post will be about this weekend and my farmer's market trips so stay tuned for that. (I assure you that it won't take as long to appear as this one did.)

Traveling is always interesting for me because I never know what's going to happen in terms of eating. As you know,
I often bring my own food (read my earlier blog post), but sometimes life is too busy to arrange much of anything. That happened this most recent trip. And much to my surprise and delight, at the international terminal of SFO there are 17 Bay Area restaurants, that were chosen from more than 200, that offer their food at their restaurant (versus inflated airport) prices. And at least 3 of them have healthier vegan fare: Harbor Village (Chinese) and Osho (Japanese) which are before you go through security and another one whose name I have forgotten but that has Middle Eastern fare including hummus and dolmas. I'd already eaten my seaweed salad and miso soup from Osho by then so I wasn't interested in more food.

When we arrived on Long Island, after our trip from JFK, we headed straight to Bagelmaster bagels in Syosset, which has been there for longer than I can remember (which means a long time). It's changed hands over the years but still has great NY bagels.

Most of you probably know that I rarely eat white flour products but I am sure that a bagel now and then won't kill me, even if they are twice the size that they were when I was growing up. But now they have something better than a bagel -- it's called something like a Flatzl -- a whole wheat or maybe multigrain flat bagel with sunflower seeds on it or with everything on it. Yummy and delicious eaten plain. Unfortunately, I did not get to go back to take some home with me.

Luckily, while we were in Woodbury, we got to stop by Gabby's Bagelatessen and meet owner Larry Ross. Either he was bored or we were very different from his regular customers because he engaged with us right away and made me an incredible chopped salad from his salad bar. You choose your ingredients and Larry chops it and mixes it up for you with your choice of dressing. The small salad he made for me was actually too much for me to eat in one sitting -- now, that is amazing. as I can really pack away the salad. The place is a typical NY bagel deli, with good coffee, according to my husband, and Larry has quite the story -- self-made man who started out as a butcher while a teen. He now owns the shopping center in Woodbury, NY. Amazing. He seemed like a super nice guy.

From the days of my youth, is On Parade diner where we had a completely unnecessary dessert one night as something to do to get out of the house. My husband said that he had the worse ice cream sundae ever. Everything seemed pricey and not especially great. I don't recommend it. It may be nostalgic for me but not enough to make it worth going.

My husband is a pizza lover and I think that maybe he had his fill but I'm not sure. He had pizza from Umberto's in Huntington and from Frank's in Woodbury. I liked Frank's because they had a deep dish roasted vegetable pizza without cheese, in slices and ready to go. Vegans, don't you wish that your local pizza place had this? I certainly do. And to sweeten the deal, the slice cost about $2.50. Where I live, this same slice would have been $4. The only thing that could have made it better would have been a light, not too doughy, whole grain crust. But it was more than satisfactory.

The best meal of all was for my mother's BD. I'd post photos but I forgot my camera and one of my sisters didn't bother to take hers out of her purse. We should have at least photographed the food at Honu Kitchen in Huntington. It is an eclectic and nice decorated, small plate restaurant but I have to say that their small plates aren't that small. We were a party of 7 and they recommend that you order 3 plates per person. We tried but couldn't achieve that.

There were enough vegetarian and vegan dishes on the menu to satisfy everyone. The ones that I liked best were the mostly the sides: artichokes with garlic and garlic edamame (the waiter described them as taking a healthy food and making it not-so-good for you, and he was correct but OMG, so tasty). the salad with candied walnuts and goat cheese, I just tasted the salad part, was wonderful. My salad with greens, asparagus and sunflower seeds left me cold. The wild mushroom gnocchi didn't thrill me nor did the creamed spinach. But sipping on my Besito Margarita made everything look rosier.

The upholstered black and white curved banquette, brick walls, crystal chandeliers and large art on the bar walls which accounts for one-third of the restaurant space made it feel upscale but comfortable. The seating allowed us all to see and speak to one another. We went early so it wasn't crowded but I imagine that it can get crowded and potentially noisy.

I would go back there anytime for a plate of edamame, a cocktail and another side or two, such as sweet potato hash or fire roasted corn, and I'd be happy as a clam, well make that a carrot.

I am thrilled to be back in California where it's spring and with it are all the spring vegetables that I so enjoy: asparagus, artichokes, peas of all types and more types of tender lettuce than I can list here. My favorite cooking is often my own.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Without Mom Where Would I Be? With Food and Vegetables

Family meals growing up were always interesting, and they happened almost every night. My mother made dinner. With a meat and potatoes husband, most of the time, and 3 particular daughters, I am sure that it wasn't easy to make something that everyone liked. This is still the daily dilemma for many Moms today. Although now, if your child doesn't like something, you can open the freezer and hand them something to pop into the microwave. But not then.

My mother never forced me to finish a meal or clean my plate. When I was a very young, and naturally too-skinny, girl she would tell people, "She eats just fine and when she wants to." Mom was responsible for most of my good eating habits, and a few of the not-so-good ones, too. She used to take me to the bakery for a treat (remember those black and white cookies?) at least once a month as I recall. She let me walk to the candy store and buy whatever I could afford, which usually wasn't much. She never made much of a big deal about either activity.

But what my mom really did for me was just let me be the eater that I was, and offered meals with vegetables daily. My best meal memories actually have to do with another Mom, and that was my grandmother, my mother's Mom.

My Nana, as she was affectionately called, was an excellent cook. She loved cooking and really knew how. My grandfather had a heart attack in his mid-40s (he lived until he was 78) so she had him on a special diet based on the Kempner rice diet. She cooked "special" things for him. It was those “special” things that I looked forward to tasting when she'd come to visit us for dinner. I am sure that my Mom could have made the same food as my Nana but it was Nana's domain and she wouldn't let anyone else do it. She carried a little cooler filled with what I deemed “the good stuff.”

My grandfather’s food was perfect for me -- baked potatoes, special tomato sauce, vegetables and usually chicken or fish, which I didn’t ask to eat. It was only recently that I realized that I ate all the vegetables that Nana brought with her whether it was eggplant , broccoli or green beans. I ate plenty of vegetables at home, too, but Nana's always tasted better. Maybe it was the special love that she put in for my grandfather that made the food taste so good.

My very special memory of my Mom, who is alive and doing well, is in the summer when I was 4 years old. She bought, or maybe grew, English pod peas. I don't remember eating them before but when I tasted them, I loved them. I recall her giving me an entire bag to shell. I went to a neighbor’s house and while sitting on a swing, I was shelling peas and eating almost as many of the small, sweet rounds as made it into the bowl for my mother. She would add them to macaroni salad. (Yes, this was pre "pasta salad" days). I am sure that I ate macaroni salad because of the peas, and not the other way around.

After I left for college my mother tended a garden. One winter I came home and my mother cooked kale. I didn’t recall ever eating it before – maybe they didn’t sell it in the supermarket. The flavor of those sweet greens still lingers in my mind today ---one of the best vegetable eating experiences I’ve had, and lead to me eating kale and other greens often.

Food issues with my mother didn’t exist since she let me eat what I wanted when I wanted without ever thinking that it was strange. When I left home and packed on some extra pounds more than once, my mother didn’t say a word, likely knowing that I had the inner wisdom to eat what I liked, and regain equilibrium and return to my natural weight.

I find it fascinating that I have turned into the quintessential mother in my professional life as The Veggie Queen™. I repeat the Mother’s war cry: “Eat your vegetables every day” although I don’t say it quite that way.

So, I have my mother to thank for good eating habits: eating when I am hungry, never feeling as if I need to finish the food on my plate with a strong desire to eat my vegetables. And when I see my mother we can share a piece of pastry or chocolate, and that also feels like a natural part of healthy eating.

Note: After writing this post I took my dog for a walk, and realized that there is indeed another Mother to which I owe complete gratitude, and that is Mother Earth. For no matter how we treat her, she still continues to provide nourishment to millions of people. She knows how to nurture each plant to provide for each person, and it’s our job to listen and learn. For without Mother Earth, we and bounty wouldn't be here.

If you want to learn more about healthy living healthy weight at Green Mountain at Fox Run click here.

If you like this post or have any comments about it, please enter them in the comments section below. I want to hear what you've got to say about your Mom, or other, experiences that have influenced your eating.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Coconut in Cooking - Vegan Dishes Get the Yum Factor

I wish that I lived in the tropics. The closest that I've come to that was the 7 years that I spent living in Florida, which is semi-tropical, while going to college and graduate school. My backyard contained a number of tropical trees: mango , star fruit, orange (which turned out to be sour oranges much to my disgust) and papaya, but no coconut.Friends grew sapote (of which there are many varieties), kumquat, grapefruit, lemons and limes but still no coconut.

I am sure that coconut has sustained people in tropical climates for thousands of years, if not longer. There is great debate about whether coconut oil or coconut, in general, is helpful or harmful when it comes to fat intake. Rather than enter that fray, I'd just like to say that I love the way that coconut tastes and the flavor that it adds to vegan dishes, especially the Thai and Indian types.

The good news for coconut lovers, like me, is that there are now many different forms in which you can buy your coconut from coconut milk beverage and yogurt by So Delicious, coconut cream, coconut milk -- lite and regular and coconut water. The latter is best if you are following a low- or fat-free diet.

If you do use the regular or lite coconut milk, here is tip that I want to share, after my sister discovered an unusable can of leftover coconut milk in my Mom's refrigerator -- if you do not use all your coconut milk, freeze what's left in ice cube trays or small containers in amounts from 2 tablespoons to 1/2 cup, which are amounts that you might use in a recipe.

I rarely use an entire can unless I am making a dish that serves at least 8 people. My choice most of the time these days is coconut water which provides coconut flavor and no fat. The dishes are not as rich but that's fine with me -- I am usually going for flavor, and that's what I call the "yum factor."

If you want more great info on freezing food, visit Mark Bittman's column in the New York Times.