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Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Apple Capital of the World

Washington state is known as "the apple capital of the world."  Or it least it used to be.  When I moved to Washington five and a half years ago I remember watching the local news, in absolute dismay as the governor announced a trade agreement with New Zealand that would include--apples.  great!  Not quite great--we'd be shipping apples in our fall and importing them in their fall.  Wait, Washington state import apples?  Bizarre.  Sure, some apples really are better eaten soon after picking.  But lots of apples are "designed" to hold over the winter, or at least a long portion of the winter.

I grew up on the East Coast thinking Washington apples were the best, aside from those I picked myself at some U-pick apple orchard nearby.  I really had been convinced by the advertising the Washington State Apple Commission had done.  And now I live in Washington and I won't eat an apple that isn't from Washington.  Heck, I try not to eat any that aren't from eastern Washington.

Which brings me to my current dilemma.  I may have been a little overzealous in my apple purchase yesterday.  Yesterday was the last market day for the outdoor downtown Spokane Farmers Market.  I bought a lot of stuff that can be held over.  Although I didn't get enough onions, since most from my preferred farmer (yes, I have a preferred farmer) had been already claimed.  I'll have to remember that next year.  I have had a busy fall and expect November to be just as busy, so I knew I wasn't going to get up to Green Bluff to pick my own apples this year.

So I bought a box.  A box, what can be the problem with that, you ask?  Well, I bought a box of organic Braeburn seconds (that means they have some dings, are a wide variety of sizes and shapes, they just aren't the super pretty apples they want in the grocery store, but they are perfectly fine to eat).  I went up to this organic orchard's stand and said to the guy there "I want some apples that a good for drying."  That's how I put up for winter the apples I picked last year so it seemed like a reasonable question to me.  He said, "for drying?" and looked down at his feet.  I said, "Yea, something a little firm, a little tart."  What I didn't know then was that he wasn't wondering what apples were good for drying he was wondering what GIGANTIC box of apples, still in the back of his truck, had apples for drying rather than the display boxes at the stand proper where people pick like six apples!  He said he had seconds of Braeburns and Golden Delicious.  I actually think Delicisios--red or golden- are anything but. He said the box was $30.  For a box of organic apples, that seemed like a good deal to me.

It was a very good deal -- 40 pounds of apples.  He had to carry the box to my car.  What have I gotten myself into?  He assured me that Braeburns keep well, too.  He said, if kept cool, they can last for months.  At least I don't have to dry them all this week.  But that food dehydrator is going to get a workout.  I dried apples all day yesterday, and I will all day today, too.  During the week it is a little harder since apples dry in four to five hours and by the time I get home from work, I might not have time to process and dry them before I go to bed.  It will be an interesting few weeks, I think.

So I am also trying to do other things with apples.  This morning I am making apple popovers.  Yesterday I just happened to be flipping through the television channels and say someone cooking with apples.  I stopped flipping--I have 40 pounds of apples to get through.  It was a show I never watch, with a really annoying host it turns out, who is like a cross between Rachel Ray and Martha Stewart--oy.  But, she and her guest were making apple popovers.  I have never made popovers, but have always wanted to try.  I remember the first time I ever had one, at the fanciest restaurant in my hometown (which sadly, has closed).  The light and airy bread gets its loft from eggs and heat--no other leavening and are called "popovers" because they are served upside-down.  They are literally, popped over.

I am not using a popover pan.  There are special pans made just for baking popovers.  I am using a muffin tin, which hopefully is an acceptable substitute.  The special pans are made of something that heats up really well and each opening is as narrow as a regular muffin tin's opening but deeper, for a more impressive shape, I guess.  If these popovers turn out well, I am asking for a popover pan for Christmas.

So, now I am waiting on popovers, thinking about other things to do with apples, and thinking about the work I have left to do today, this Halloween, for school and my career.  No dressing up for anything for me, except the school teacher with her apple.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Do you know the way to San Jose?

I am just back from an academic conference on environmental justice and sustainability in San Jose, California at Santa Clara University.  It was a really interesting conference and I got to meet a really interesting woman in my field, which is always a treat.  But this was, after all a conference on sustainability and that means there was some talk about food and sustainability.

The food served at the conference was, by and large, either quite good or typical conference fare.  The first afternoon at the conference started with a cocktail party with some passed hors d'oeuvres, your standard cheese and cracker plate and crudites.   Dinner was lovely, and I was assured by the people who worked for Santa Clara that much of the food really was sustainably grown (although I have my doubts about the chicken and the chocolate).

But I do have two moments from the conference that are both more important than the food or my doubts from the first dinner.  One has to do with the conference topic and presentations the other has to do with lunch on day two. 

Lunch on day two was a soup and salad buffet.  I like buffets since you can make your own choices about what to take and how much to take.  The salad was separated into individual bowls--lettuce in one, carrots in another--you get the idea.  It was pretty much sesame chicken salad.  I chose judiciously--only what I wanted to eat and only as much as I wanted to eat.  I skipped the soup, even though it looked pretty good.  But as I was finishing what I took one of the conference organizers, with whom I had dinner the night before mentioned that I hadn't eaten much--but I had eaten all I wanted and was full.  No need to take more than I needed.  Waste is not sustainable.  I don't mean to be critical.  She did not mean anything insulting by it.  Rather, I expect she was trying to be a good host--hospitality is a key trait of Jesuit communities and schools.  But it did stick with me.  Often we push food on others as a sign of hospitality and I am sure that in earlier times it made more sense than it might now.  But I am going to try to do less of this myself since it encourages overeating or waste, neither of which is good!

The other thing has to do with some discussions about food and sustainability as content of the conference.  Santa Clara has a garden to teach their students and others about food and the environment.  We are starting a garden here, too--the raised beds went in earlier this month.  They also do outreach into parts of their community to discuss and try to alleviate food deserts which are getting more and more prevalent in urban centers.  But the main focus of environmental justice, something I teach about in some of my classes, has really got my wheels turning.  How can I work this idea into my food ethics research?  I'm getting ideas.  this is not what I expected from my time at this conference.  I expected to go, asked to be the leader of the delegation from my school, and that was it.  But by taking the opportunity seriously, I got some food for thought, too.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Soup's On!

This Saturday and last were both simmer up crushed tomatoes and make soup days. Last Saturday I made some butternut squash soup using the last of my homemade chicken stock from the freezer. I had to use the stock or there would not have been room for some of the soup. Today I made cream of potato and leek soup. Each batch was about 7 cups of soup which is enough for a 2 weeks worth of lunches. Yum.

In the fall and winter I often make soup on the weekends so I have something reliably good, healthy, economical and ethical for lunch during the week. I hate spending a lot of money on a sandwich or something at school when I know I should have brought my lunch. I would rather wait until I had lunch plans with someone to spend the money.

There is something really homey about soup. When it is cooking up on the stove it makes the house smell like someone has been doing some heavy cooking, although most of the soup I make is pretty low maintenance. Admittedly, this Saturday and last, I made soup that needed to be pureed in the blender. That's unusual for me.

But this morning at the farmers market, walking though the stalls now fewer in number than in the height of summer, I thought I ought to take advantage of having some leeks still available. Winter squash will hold over longer. And next weekend I am out of town at a conference in California, so no farmers market for me. When I return, it will be just days before the last farmers market of the season and I will really have to think ahead of what I can buy and store for the long winter.

But as of right now I have 18 cups of crushed tomatoes in the freezer, 2 cups of butternut squash soup and 4 cups of cream of potato and leek soup in there. There are also several cups of diced white onion, of celery and of bell pepper. There are 9 cups of sliced strawberries and another 3 of blackberries with a few strawberries and raspberries in there for good measure. I have 8 cups of dried tomatoes and 6 cups of dried nectarines. I still have to get some apples to dry. There are 5 pounds of onions and 10 of potatoes for storing in the dark part of the fridge. I have 15 pounds of whole wheat flour, too.

Clearly I am starting to take stock of what will be available for the winter. It is harder to eat locally for me in the winter, although this will be the first winter with the Co-op, so I am interested to see how much that helps in my endeavors. (Above that's the cream of potato and leek soup with a crisp of Parmesan and provolone on top. Delish!)

There will certainly be more soup in the weeks to come and soon there will be casseroles and other hearty warm dishes to ward off the cold that comes to the inland northwest as the late fall creeps into full winter. I am looking forward to the noodle and rice casseroles, the polenta with mushrooms and dried tomatoes polenta with crisp pancetta and shavings of good Parmesan cheese and a glass of dry red wine. Maybe winter won't be so bad after all!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tomatoes everywhere ...

I've been dealing a lot in tomatoes lately. This point in the fall the newness of tomatoes has worn off and the processing them for the winter begins in earnest. I have been drying, crushing, freezing and eating tomatoes. This processing has made me convinced I really do need to learn how to can them. It would be much more efficient. But, until that day, I deal with them by drying, crushing and freezing.

Barbara Kingsolver, in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle talks about processing tons of tomatoes. Ok, well, not tons, but close--she weighed them. Her youngest daughter refers to her as "Mama, the Tomato Queen" and used up all her red crayons in portrait after portrait. I have not yet committed this kind of insanity. But is it really insanity? As Kingsolver mentions, those tomatoes she puts up in the summer and fall will still be local in February. And in February they look to her like glowing red Valentine's.

Tomatoes are so versatile and such an important part of so many recipes and there are plenty of really good organic canned varieties, but this for me is not simply a matter of eating locally or organically, although it is in part. It is also about making sure the farmers from whom I buy all these tomatoes will be here next year. I am trying to pay them for their time and their effort.

Especially this year. It has been a rough year for a lot of people in the agricultural business here in Eastern Washington. A lot of people lost some of their crops -- and tomatoes were hit hard. The coolness of the weather was not what the tomatoes wanted. A few weeks ago one of the farmers I frequent at the Downtown Farmers Market was interviewed by the local paper about the slow tomato crop and what to do if your home garden was a victim. So I have been buying more tomatoes from them and from every farmers market I go to, since I do know how to deal with tomatoes now for using later better than for other crops.

Yesterday I dried some tomatoes and turned others into sauce. And I also ate some. There is one benefit to this strange weather we have been having. There was some late arugula at the farmers market yesterday which turned into an arugula, tomato and warm bacon dressing salad that was just amazing.

But I am pretty sure that the dried tomato pesto, spaghetti sauce, and other items this winter made with the tomatoes I am putting up now will be amazing, too. Amazing that some of summer has made its way into winter and will be a reminder of gratitude for the growing season past and of the growing season ahead.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Getting out of the kitchen, and then back in

I've been getting out of the kitchen a lot lately, that is, doing a lot of outreach related to local, ethical food. In just a few weeks time I was on a panel talking about organic, local food at the local temple for their Hadassah group and two programs in the residence halls. Well, two for residence life, one was in a hall the other was at the farmers market, but a program run by a residence assistant.

Doing these kinds of programs always excites me, but makes me a little nervous, too. It is exciting because I get to talk about something I am passionate about to a whole new group of people, people not yet "converted" usually to the virtues of local, organic, sustainable food. And nervous because I never know exactly how to pitch a non-academic talk. I am much more comfortable talking to academics or in the classroom.

The talk for Hadassah was over brunch and with two other local food experts. The Jewish women of the group were almost all dressed up. They were excited to be kicking off some of their programming for the year. It was really nice and fun. I grew up in a community with a lot of Jewish families and it had been a long time since I had been in that community. And, there is no lack of interest when talking to Jewish people about food--it is such an important part of their culture and religion. I even got through a couple of lines of the blessing in my head before I forgot what was coming next. But I suppose as a Catholic I can be excused for not knowing Hebrew.

The two residence life programs were very different from one another, but both really interesting and fun. The one last weekend was entitled "Girls Go Green." They walked to the farmers market from campus and I met them there, gave them a little tour, talked about local food issues, the Co-op and answered some questions. They were polite and at the same time, distracted by the bounty that was available. We talked about cooking and how to make meals more sustainable. It was a glorious day weather wise and I think they had a nice time. And one thing about GU students that always impresses me, they are thankful--I got a note from the RAs who planned the event, signed by all the girls who went. I hope they are now more thankful for their food, too.

And Thursday night I did a little cooking class. The RA who approached me about this program also works in my department office. We planned a menu of my chicken tortilla soup and cornbread. It was not a glorious night weather wise, it was rather, a dreary, rainy night as we get deeper into fall. Soup was appropriate. I had forgotten how poorly equipped Res Hall kitchens tend to be. I brought some cooking equipment with me, but we still lacked a few things that would have made things a little easier. Nevertheless, though, we made enough soup and cornbread to feed 26 college students in half and hour. As the soup finished simmering and the cornbread got that lovely golden color to the crust, I talked to the students assembled about local food and sustainable food and how this food really is healthier. As the students ate, I walked around to each little group and we chatted about what was important to them -- when the farmers market is open, could they get Filipino food at the farmers market, what about Chinese food at the farmers market, what do we do on campus, is any of the food in the caf local. The RAs for this program washed all the dishes and things I bought and had the thank you note to me the next day. These students, too, know how to be thankful for a meal.

People want to know about their food. The food system has just gotten so complicated that it makes it difficult and lots of people threw up their hands in frustration. But that frustration seems to have been turned into action as more and more people want to learn and then do something about it, change the way they eat.

The more people I meet and the more I talk to about the ethics of food the more I find who are interested. A few years ago when I started doing this people either thought it was weird or were surprised there was such a thing. No longer. More often now I get questions about when my class meets, will it be offered again, and from non-student adults I get the question of whether or not they could audit the class.

I take all of this as a good sign. People do care and are getting primed to act. These are all activist rebel types. They tend to be educated folks who are realizing that their food dollars are supporting things they wouldn't otherwise support and are concerned about their health and the environment's health. this is where things come full circle. I know I have inspired some to make changes about their food and they in turn inspire me to continue to do this work.