Brown Bag Monday: What’s in Season?

IMG_2079

Other than meat, dairy and eggs, nearly everything we eat can trace its roots to an angiosperm aka “flowering plant“. Angiosperms are over 140,000 million years old, and their lineage traces back to a branch from gynosperms (seed producing plants that don’t wrap their seeds in fruits) over 200,000 million years ago. Since then they have exploded into between some 250,000 to 400,000 distinct species and have adapted to virtually any environment.

All angiosperms follow a distinct lifecycle: seed → germination → sprout → leaf → flower → fruit and then death (annuals) or repeat (perennials). Regardless of the parent plant’s survival or demise, the seeds of the next generation sit safely ensconced in the fruit that is the culmination of each growing seasons trials and tribulations.

IMG_2077

Barbara Kingsolver walks readers of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle through the life cycle of the “vegetannual” as a means “to recover an intuitive sense of what will be in season throughout the year”. This helps you recognize what was likely flown, trucked, trained, or boated to your grocery store from thousands of miles away, even when the stores do their best to hide the seasons from us.

The vegetannual is a single plant that produces an entire seasons worth of food. The seed of the vegetannual will germinate shortly after the last frost when the ground begins to warm. From the germinated seed, a root shoots downward, two seed leaves pop and a true leave shoot sprouts upwards. Eventually sunlight awakens the chloroplasts in the true leaves, and from then on the seedling is on its own.

Now the leaves start to multiply and “spinach, kale, lettuce and chard (April – May)” are ready to be picked off the vegetannual. The leave heads continue to mature so next comes “cabbage, romaine, broccoli and cauliflower (May – June).” Flowers lead to fruit so early immature edible fruits are the next to the dinner plate: “snow peas, baby squash, cucumber (June), followed by green beans, green peppers, and small tomatoes (July).” Next comes large “tomatoes, eggplants, red and yellow peppers (late July – August)”. Finally your mature hard fruits are ready, like melons, pumpkins and apples (August – September). Last are the root crops: potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets and turnips (autumn – winter).

IMG_2074

If you can remember that the order of things is “leaves, buds, flowers/green fruits, ripe fruits, hard fruits”, then roots, and that each stage lasts for about a month or two beginning near April, then you’ll have a good idea what’s in season without having to read the fine print.

What are your favorite fruits or vegetables? If you haven’t been aware of their true season before, can you make a guess at what their season is now? How close were you?

IMG_2101

Last week we started to get snow peas from my first raised garden bed. After completing a third bed I jokingly referred to the first pea we took as our “500 dollar pea”. If I counted my time too and not just the material it would have been worth an even more exorbitant sum! As tasty as it was I am sure no one would pay that much for a pea, even a fresh local organic one! Luckily each snow pea I pick reduces the cost significantly. Now that I’ve picked 10 of them, each would have only been 50 dollars a piece; I’m almost willing to pay!

Lolo’s Dad

IMG_2006

Lengua Estofada (Smothered Beef Tongue)

puerto_rican_cookery

Today’s recipe post is a guest post. I met Christine five years ago in Philadelphia at the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers college recruiting conference. I manged to sneak my way onto the interview team representing my firmware lab. Christine was set to graduate from The City College of New York with a degree in Computer Science.

A couple of months after I had returned to Sacramento my manager setup a set of onsite interviews for Christine and we flew her out from New York. The rest as you say is history. Christine has been in my lab now for 5 years.

In addition to her interests in engineering and technology, Christine has always enjoyed cooking. Recently she took a 22-week culinary course through The International Culinary Center (founded as The French Culinary Institute) in Campbell, CA. She is also a fan of the Slow Food movement like we are.

One area of our own cooking that I’d like to improve upon is our ability to use more parts from the animals we eat. As you will see this post is definitely inspiring to say the least! 

Thanks Christine, we look forward to more posts from you!

Lolo’s Dad

Slow Food – The Puerto Rican Way

In recent months, I have been drawn to offal. The amateur chef in me is learning not only to be more selective of the quality of meat I choose, but also less finicky about the cut of meat. It gets me to practice “nose to tail” cooking as best I can. So when a friend suggested a cooking day to learn more about my Puerto Rican heritage, I knew exactly what would be on the menu: beef tongue.

Beef Tongue = Offal. Offal = Slow Food. Slow Food = LOVE.

I had picked up a tongue a few weeks prior from Whole Foods, and though I had never cooked it before, I figured this was the perfect time to try my hand at it. Besides, I can find no better way to say, “Welcome to my home!” than a pot of stewed meat.

I found a recipe in my highly prized cookbook, Puerto Rican Cookery by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli (the English translation of her original cookbook, Cocina Criolla), and found a few other recipes to round out the meal.

Puerto Rican staples are harder to find here than in my native NYC, so I headed to La Superior SuperMercado in Natomas. What I found was disheartening: a virtually non-existent organic produce section, no sign of locality/seasonality, questionable meats obtained from who-knows-where, and high fructose corn syrup, MSG, and myriad of preservatives in all the well-known Puerto Rican staples. This is a far departure from the farmers’ market shopping I have grown to love here in the Sacramento area, but not surprising.

Working with the available selection, I purchased green plantains, yuca, salted cod, fresh farmer’s cheese made in-house, guava paste, and a variety of Malta (malt soda) from different countries. I was satisfied with my purchases, and rushed home to prepare.

I invited friends, and friends of friends over to my apartment, and set up the evening like a cooking class; everyone attending was going to help prepare the meal from start to finish. The only thing I had to prepare up front was the beef tongue, which needed to boil for a few hours to tenderize.

I was squeamish at first, but after a few minutes I was able to inspect the tongue, and feel its varying textures from the rough spiky taste buds at the tip, to the swirly, pad-like taste buds at the base of the tongue. I then put it in the pot to boil. After a few hours, it was time to remove its outer skin. This took a bit more work than anticipated, but I managed to get it off in one piece.

As evening time rolled around, the smells in my apartment were inviting, and I was so excited for my guests to arrive. Once they did, I put them right to work!  We spent a few hours cooking, which was intertwined with questions, story-telling, tons of laughter, and some snacking in between.  I could not have asked for a better time spent with friends.

We prepared tostones (fried green plantains) with garlic sauce, Spanish style chorizo (spicy cured sausage), bacalao (salted cod) salad with boiled yuca, and of course the beef tongue. Unfortunately, by the end of the night, we were too tired to even try the tongue! Though I did make sure that everyone went home with a piece of our delectable creation.

Note to self: don’t plan a slow food cooking night on a Monday!

2013-04-22 18.35.57

Lengua Estofada (Smothered Beef Tongue)

From Puerto Rican Cookery, by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli, Serves 8.

Ingredients

A (phase one ingredients)

  • 4-lb fresh beef tongue
  • Water – (measure by quarts to cover tongue freely)
  • Salt – (use 1 teaspoon salt for each quart of water)

B (phase two ingredients)

  • 4 peppercorns (whole black peppers)
  • 1 teaspoon whole dried oregano, crushed
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 quart (4 cups) water

C (optional ingredients)

  • 1 ½ cups sweet or dry wine (see Note)
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 12 dry prunes, pitted
  • 1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into pieces
  • 1 pound onions, peeled and slices
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Directions

IMG_1249

1 – Scrub the tongue with a vegetable brush under warm running water.  Drain and dry.  Place in a large deep kettle.  Add water and salt included in A.

2 – Bring rapidly to a boil, reduce heat to low, partially cover kettle, and simmer for 2 hours.

3 – Remove tongue and plunge into cold water.  Remove from water and allow to cool slightly.  Trim off bone and gristle at thick end.  Peel tongue.

4 – Place tongue in a large caldero or heavy kettle.  Add ingredients included in B and bring rapidly to a boil.  Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until the tongue is almost fork-tender.

5 – Add ingredients included in C and bring rapidly to a boil.  Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until tongue is fork-tender.  Taste and adjust seasoning.

6 – Remove tongue.  Boil sauce over moderate heat until sauce thickens to taste.

7 – Cut tongue in slices and arrange on a serving platter, garnished with potatoes.  Serve sauce in a deep dish.

Note:  Sweet wine imparts distinctive flavor to the recipe, but it can be replaced, according to taste, by Burgundy or any other good dry red wines.  Rest of ingredients included in C are optional.

– Christine R

Brown Bag Monday: Topsoil Health

Rothstein-Oklahoma-dust-storm

Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it.” – The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Soil fertility is an immensely important characteristic of our life sustaining Earth, yet if you are like me you may think little of it. I vaguely recall reading and hearing in passing such subjects as “loss of topsoil” and “soil degradation” in the past, but I never sought out any data on the topic. Maybe gardening and reading The Grapes of Wrath for the Slow Food book club has made me more interested. Certainly anyone that lived through the dust bowl period and was impacted by it knows how critical healthy soil is to ways of life we might otherwise take for granted.

When the term soil fertility is mentioned usually it is the amount and quality of the A horizon aka “topsoil” that is being referred to. This is because topsoil is the first layer of real soil and contains the most richly broken down organic matter and microorganisms. This means earth worms and plant roots love it! While plant roots do penetrate the layers of soil beneath topsoil, they don’t get nearly as much of their nutrition from this depth. Furthermore most seeds can’t be planted very deep anyway so – no topsoil no produce.

There are two natural ways topsoil is lost; wind erosion and water erosion. Drought can speed up the effects of wind and water erosion but doesn’t really destroy soil by itself. On the flip side soil is naturally produced all the time. Organic matter that hits the earth is automatically transformed into soil by microorganisms and other critters. This process has a capacity to produce soil at around 1 to 2 inches every 100 years.¹ Lose more than 1 to 2 inches every 100 years and you are slowly eating away Earth’s capacity to provide us with healthy topsoil.

Now toss man into the equation and we speed up these natural methods. How? The primary cause is tilling or plowing. Traditional farming practices state that you till the ground at the end of the growing season to remove the dead plants and prepare fresh ground for next springs planting. But in between fall and spring you have winter’s rains and winds. Soil exposed with no roots to keep it in place is much more likely to be washed and blown away. The impact of tilling, along with lack of crop rotation and a few years of drought was the primary cause of the American dust bowl of the 30s that forced 2.5 million Americans to migrate west. 200,000 “settled” in California were they where greeted by the derogatory phrase Okie, terrible pay, and regular harassment by law enforcement and towns people that wanted the “undesirables” out of their country.²

Besides our ability to speed up erosion, we also created some of our very own soil degradation issues. There are many ways to list out the types of man made soil degradation, but basically you have salination (caused by the leaching of salts to the surface in dryland that is irrigated to raise crops), chemical (we dump toxins in the soil and then can’t grow anything there), and raising or lowering of the water table to unhealthy levels by poor irrigation practices. Here’s a link to an interesting map on the global impact of man’s effect on soil degradation (unfortunately from 1990 ).

The good news is that farmers certainly recognize the impacts of soil erosion and degradation and more and more of them are using no till or organic methods that treat the land much more naturally. In 1982 the United States lost 3.06 billion tons of soil on crop land due to erosion. In 2007 our crop land soil losses were down to 1.73 billion tons a year.³ Pretty significant progress but there are still quite a few green and red dots on this map, each of which represents 100,000 tons of soil loss above the natural soil loss tolerance rate.

Lolo’s Dad

¹ http://www.seattlepi.com/national/article/The-lowdown-on-topsoil-It-s-disappearing-1262214.php

² http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/dustbowl-mass-exodus-plains/

³ http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/technical/nra/nri/?cid=stelprdb1041887

Is Sugar Toxic?

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17Sugar-t.html

Thanks to the comments my readers left after this Monday’s post I learned a lot more about sugar and would highly recommend you do the same. The NY Times article above is pretty long, but I found it extremely interesting. Regardless it’s definitely worth your time. So do yourself a favor and make a cup of black coffee tomorrow morning and read the article above. After you finish reading you can always add sugar back if you aren’t worried.

Brown Bag Monday: Obesity

The video above was shared by our friend (and reader) Adam in the comments of our previous post ‘Who’s Cooking Your Food?‘. I hadn’t had a chance to watch the first video until last weekend. Right off the bat the chart on the increase in obesity from 1970 to 2010 was pretty shocking. For me it validates that there is a modern day obesity epidemic.

Another section I connected with was how the video attacks the notion that all you have to track to lose weight is calories in and calories out. I know there is a lot more to nutrition than just calories, so this message has always rung hollow to me. How can a calorie of pure sucrose equal the nutrients behind a calorie of leafy vegetables? Obviously it can’t, and on top of that only .26 grams of sugar gets you 1 calorie, whereas it takes 5.6 grams of green leaf lettuce to get 1 calorie. I’m pretty sure our bodies are going to get a little more bang for the buck out of the 5.6 grams of green leaf lettuce than the 1 gram of sugar. Now multiply the above results by the number of calories you need a day and you quickly get a sense of how easily empty calories can rob us of so much health.

The video also covers the diseases caused by metabolic syndrome: type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and lipid problems. As if these classic diseases weren’t enough, they are also now finding that non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome, cancer, and dementia can also be caused by metabolic syndrome.

To further dampen the mood, metabolic syndrome isn’t just for the “obese”. 20% of those that are obese show no metabolic syndrome and will live normal lives. Meanwhile 40% of normal weight patients have metabolic syndrome and will be susceptible to the same litany of diseases. In the United States today a full 60% of all American’s have signs of metabolic syndrome.

The video wraps up by comparing rising health care costs to the rise of the 8 diseases caused by metabolic syndrome, then looking at these impacts on developing nations as well. What other factors do you think are contributing to the rise of obesity and the prevalence of metabolic syndrome in the obese and the non-obese?

In other news I’ve been thinking some about future brown bag Monday topics. Leave a comment and let me know which topic you be interested in discussing first and I’ll do my best to write about it next week.

  • The impact of fertilizer and pesticide use in conventional farming on our fresh water resources
  • A look into the food trade of the United States with the rest of the world
  • Genetically modified organisms and their impact on our health (covered a bit last Friday)
  • Seed savers exchange and the importance of preserving open-pollinated seeds
  • The decline in healthy top soil in the United States
  • Specify your own topic

Lolo’s Dad

Florida and Other Stuff

Tomorrow Lolo goes on her first jet plane. We are flying to Florida for my sister-in-law’s college graduation. It seems like just the other day that I was at her high school graduation party. We are very happy for her and excited to celebrate with her again; meanwhile I’ll do my best to try and not think about how this makes me feel old!

As usual before a trip I’m a little worried about our dogs and cats, but now I have an additional worry – my vegetable garden. It’s on drip and can be automated, but I’ve been manually watering it because our main valve leaks ever so slightly. I meant to fix it but didn’t get to it in time. I hope I don’t come home to plants that died because they were over or under watered for 4 days!

My wife returned to work last week (one of the reasons for her absence on posts), which has definitely been bittersweet. She returned to a promotion, giving her a challenge that helps make the hardship of leaving Lolo behind easier, but now we both feel like we don’t see enough of our daughter during the week. We spend time with her in the mornings, then I head into the office so that I leave our home office to my wife. At 8 am our nanny comes over and takes care of Lolo (except feedings which mom still gives) until 4 pm. Lolo falls asleep for the night around 6:30 or 7 so we basically get only 3 hours a day of awake time with her 😦

The past month we’ve visited two farms. Salle Orchards in Wheatland and Tony’s Fruitstand in Marysville. We promise to have Featured Foodie Fridays posts soon of both of these great farms, but still need a bit more time to consolidate our notes and write about our trips.

Meanwhile my chiropractor Dr. Hoffart shared this article that a former research scientist for Agriculture Canada, Thierry Vrain, is said to have written. I can be a little skeptical, even more so if I’m putting something out for all of you, so I did a little digging. I went to Agriculture Canada searched for Thierry Vrain. I got several hits on his name as a contributing author to research publications. Then I found that the article above looks like it actually went viral from a letter to the editor he wrote in response to this Vancouver Sun article. So now you have both sides of the argument.

After reading Theirry’s letter to the editor and the Vancouver Sun Article that was written by Lorne Hepworth – President of CropLife Canada, I think I’m going with Thierry. Unfortunately this means that the following:

There are no long term feeding studies performed in these countries to demonstrate the claims that engineered corn and soya are safe. All we have are scientific studies out of Europe and Russia, showing that rats fed engineered food die prematurely.

These studies show that proteins produced by engineered plants are different than what they should be. Inserting a gene in a genome using this technology can and does result in damaged proteins. The scientific literature is full of studies showing that engineered corn and soya contain toxic or allergenic proteins.

would be true, so be careful what you eat.

To lighten things up a bit, check out this beer from Ruhstaller I found at Nugget tonight. It is brewed in Rancho Cordova and they contract with local hop and barley farmer’s throughout California. To top all that off they’ve been doing this since 1881!  How have I never heard of them before? Farm to pint, love it!

IMG_1951

Lolo’s Dad

Pasta Primavera

IMG_1949

A couple of weeks ago when our highs all seemed to be hitting 90° it felt like we had skipped spring and gone straight into summer. Last weekend our heatwave broke (we even had a little rain yesterday) which helped us remember it was actually spring!

Primavera means spring in both Italian and Spanish. We enjoy making primavera by selecting whatever vegetables are in season when we go to the market, then coming home and using them up. This is exactly what we did with the asparagus, broccolini, and mushrooms we picked up last Sunday at Nugget Market.

The funny thing about grocery shopping is how quickly you can convince yourself to turn off your filters. As soon as we saw the asparagus we wanted it for our primavera. It didn’t even cross my mind to check where it was from. I convinced myself it would be impossible for this asparagus to not be from California. After all we are in the middle of asparagus season and had just enjoyed Stockton’s asparagus festival the weekend before.

So the asparagus was purchased without a second thought and it wasn’t until I started cooking that I noticed “Washington” staring at me from the rubber band holding the asparagus stalks together. It’s not like the state of Washington is across the globe or even across the country from California, but I do find it ironic that a California grocery store chain would source asparagus from a grower outside of the golden state! Note to self: farmer’s markets, farmer’s markets, farmer’s markets.

IMG_1938

Ingredients

  • Pasta
  • Fresh vegetables (we used asparagus, broccolini and mushrooms)
  • Butter
  • Garlic
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup tomato sauce
  • 2 lemons
  • Basil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Parmesan cheese

Directions

Bring water to boil for the pasta while preparing your vegetables. The vegetables should be chopped or sliced into bite sized pieces. Add the pasta and cook it according to your pasta’s directions.

IMG_1940

Saute each vegetable separately in a large skillet over medium heat with a tablespoon of butter until they start to soften, then set them aside. Add the garlic near the end of your last saute cycle.

IMG_1943

Empty the skillet then add the tomato sauce, heavy cream, basil and juice from the lemons. Simmer the sauce until it thickens slightly. Salt and pepper to taste. Add all of the sauteed vegetables back to the sauce and simmer for a minute or two prior to plating.

IMG_1945

Dish out your pasta, add some of the sauce and vegetables, then top with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Enjoy!

Lolo’s Dad

IMG_1937