The Milkweed Diaries

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ellie's Ginger Cranberry Sauce - A Thanksgiving Indulgence

Fresh cranberries on the kitchen scale

Our Thanksgiving feast this year will include lots of local food -- sweet potatoes, potatoes, eggs, milk -- and quite a few ingredients straight from our garden -- butternut squash, pumpkin, celery, garlic, collards, dried sage and thyme, along with some soup stock we put away over the summer which we'll use for making gravy and dressing. But at least one thing on the table will be made from ingredients that come from far, far away: the cranberry sauce.

Fresh, whole cranberries are a delicious indulgence--a special treat that I cook up once a year in late November.

I remember exactly when I first made fresh cranberry sauce. It was November of 1999 and I was preparing food for my family's Thanksgiving meal. I was lucky enough to come across fresh cranberries and great advice about what to do with them all in one place.

When I first moved back to Western North Carolina almost ten years ago, I went to work at the French Broad Food Co-op, a long-standing institution and a hub of food community, food traditions, food activism, and social change networks in Western NC. I love the FBFC, and am so grateful for the role it has played for more than thirty years in building community, creating a market for healthy, local, and organic foods, and connecting people who care about food, health, and community. I met many of my first friends in Asheville through the Co-op, ended up serving on the Board for a few years, have shopped at farmers markets in the Co-op's parking lot hundreds of times by now, and have benefited from connection with the Co-op in far too many ways to count. One tangible benefit is this cranberry sauce.

That first fall that I lived in Asheville, just before Thanksgiving, the Co-op had a big bin of fresh cranberries in bulk in the produce section. They were so beautiful, but what to do with them? Next to bountiful pile of ruby-colored berries was a basket holding slips of paper -- copies of Ellie's Cranberry Sauce recipe.

Ellie is one of the original founding members of the Co-op and still cooks for and coordinates the FBFC kitchen and deli. She is definitely a food elder in the community, someone who has been preparing, sharing, and promoting healthy food for many years, sharing and cultivating food traditions across generations here in the Asheville area.

I have long-since lost that slip of paper-- it's probably somewhere in a bag or box with other miscellaneous slips of paper somewhere. But I learned two things from the recipe. One: how easy it is to make really delicious whole cranberry sauce--what a revelation! And two: the extra deliciousness that is possible with one signature ingredient -- crystallized ginger.

Ever since that first foray into cranberries inspired by Ellie's recipe, I've made the brilliant scarlet sauce at Thanksgiving time every year. Now I make a sauce loosely based on the classic and simple Joy of Cooking recipe, but substituting Ellie's signature crystallized ginger for half of the sugar.

Here's the recipe:

Ginger Cranberry Sauce a la Ellie

1 pound fresh cranberries
2 cups water or 1 1/2 cups water and 1/2 cup orange juice
1 cup raw sugar
1 cup minced crystallized ginger
1 cup walnuts (optional)
Orange slices and orange zest (optional)

  • Wash and pick through the cranberries, removing any stems and rotted or bruised berries.
  • Finely mince the crystallized ginger.
  • Mix water and sugar in a saucepan big enough to hold all of the cranberries. Bring the water and sugar mix to a boil; boil the syrup for 5 minutes.
  • Add the cranberries and the chopped ginger. Stir very lightly, just to incorporate everything into the syrup.
  • Cook uncovered very gently without stirring until the berries are soft and you have a thick sauce. DON'T overcook the cranberries. If they start to pop and burst, it's just past time to stop cooking.
  • Chill in a mold, or just serve in a bowl. Garnish with orange slices and orange zest.
  • Eat at your leisure throughout late November and December. Keeps for several weeks in the refrigerator.

The finished sauce, ready to chill

All in all, this is a sauce of ingredients that I consider exotic, and therefore a rare and decadent indulgence. None of the ingredients --sugar, cranberries, and ginger--can be grown around here, though I am still holding out hope that we might have some success with highbush cranberries, and maybe grow some ginger in the greenhouse. If you add oranges, you up the exotic (non-local) ante even more.

This is all just to say it's a special treat, a treat that takes me out of ordinary time. Its glassy, ruby gorgeousness, the texture of silky, sticky, and plump cranberries that burst in your mouth, and the spicy-sweet tartness are an incredible culinary experience. It looks like stained glass on the Thanksgiving table, and it is a perfect complement to the savory flavors of traditional Thanksgiving fare.

I remember how amazed I was to discover that this luscious and beautiful treat was so simple (just 3 essential ingredients), so quick, and so easy. I usually make a big batch the day before Thanksgiving. I use a pound or two of cranberries and keep whatever is left after Thanksgiving to pile on Thanksgiving leftover sandwiches, to snack on throughout December, and to serve the last of for Solstice and Christmas feasts.

Today I'm giving thanks for all of those who have stewarded and shared food traditions down through the ages. And especially I am thankful for my "food elders" who have taught me about growing, preserving, and preparing food to nurture and sustain our bodies and souls. I am grateful for all of those who have shared food, who worked to ensure that all are fed, and who have cultivated community with food traditions old and new. And for all of those who work growing food to nourish our bodies and care for the earth, I'm giving thanks.

With profound gratitude: Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Winter Reading: From Scuppernongs to Switchel

When it gets cold outside, there's nothing I like more than curling up somewhere with a hot beverage, a cat, and a book. I come from a long line of bookworms, librarians, word-lovers, readers, writers, and other nerd-types. Book-loving is in my blood.

If the book contains recipes, food history, and stories about food, all the better as far as I am concerned. One of my all-time favorites is 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From, by a hero of mine, seed saver and historian William Woys Weaver.

So I can't tell you how excited I was to be introduced last night to this book: Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, & Scuppernong Wine by Joseph E. Dabney. We were having dinner with our good friends Bud and MF. After a highly satisfying meal of stuffed butternut squash, cream of broccoli soup made from broccoli from their garden, and a creamy custard for dessert, we retired to the living room to talk about James Bond movies (!), Noam Chomsky, and traditional mountain "stack cakes." This last topic lead to MF whipping out the aforementioned book.

We found several very fine stack cake recipes within, but that was just the beginning. This book is a treasure trove of Southern Appalachian food lore, food histories, food traditions, and recipes. It's one part oral history, one part cookbook, and one part hymn to the people and traditions of the Southern Appalachians. It is meticulously researched and written with the reverence and relish of a person who has cultivated a long-lasting and deep love of food and food traditions.

I quickly became completely absorbed -- a whole chapter on sweet potatoes, another on persimmons, and a veritable profusion of information about old-time food-preserving techniques. Very old Cherokee recipes, wild foods traditions, and chapters on moonshine, wine, and beer. Recipes calling for everything from "several squirrels" to "Tennessee truffles," otherwise known as ramps. A section on "The Art of Growing" in the southern mountains. And lots of amazing old photographs of places all around where I grew up and where I live now. This is so far up my alley it's out the other side.

In the 12 or so hours since MF kindly lent me her copy (seeing the pain it would cause me if she didn't), I have spent most of my waking hours falling in love with this book. I stayed up late reading Christopher snippets about the history of wild grapes in North Carolina, and opened it up first thing this morning to read about possum hunting.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. As I try out recipes, I will post some of them, and I'll write more about Dabney's exhaustive survey of mountain food culture as I read and re-read it, I am sure.

On a related note (food traditions, books I love, recommended reading for cold days and nights), I was re-united last night with my copy of Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. I had apparently lent it out to MF long ago and forgotten. Christopher has had to hear me lament its absence many times in recent months, only to discover that it was safe and sound in West Asheville all along. I was very excited when MF whipped out my copy last night.

This is one of my all-time favorite books. It is only 187 pages from cover to cover, but it is highly concentrated. Like a thick mole or miso paste, it provides more flavor, substance, and hours of enjoyment than you might imagine. Wild Fermentation is chock full of recipes, food histories, stories from the modern food underground, philosophy, politics, and food lore from many traditions.

Wild Fermentation is the book that I used as a guide when I first began making krauts and brine pickles, ginger brews, kombucha, and other fermented foods. It is the single indispensable resource for people embarking on fermentation adventures, in my opinion, and an invaluable cache of fabulous food facts and folk traditions.

So there are two recommendations for winter reading. Though I am a big fan of libraries, these are books that I think it is worth owning. My copy of Wild Fermentation is well-worn already -- it has the creases and stains to prove that it's a book I pull off the shelf and use in the kitchen all the time. I am going to purchase Smokehouse post haste, and have a feeling it will assume a similarly revered and beloved status in my kitchen.

Happy winter, happy eating, and happy reading!


A note on the title of this post: Scuppernongs and Muscadines are wild grapes that grew rampantly in North Carolina before and at the time of European settlement. According to Joseph Dabney, they were still to be found in abundance growing wild in these parts as recently as the 1940s, and were used for wine-making, desserts, and an amazing-sounding ferment made from wild grapes and molasses, apparently based on a Cherokee tradition. Switchel is a delicious home-made soft drink with molasses and ginger, a fine recipe for which can be found in Wild Fermentation.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Frostbitten greens and a single digit night

It got down to 8 (eight) -- yes, that's 8 degrees here in the valley night before last.

It had snowed all day Friday, and so we already felt pretty wintry. But there's nothing like a night in the single digits to let you know it's winter for real.

What with the extreme cold and the wetness, some of our greens got zapped, even under the floating row covers.

Above: greens before the frostbite. Afterwards, they looked much less perky.

We are still working on the post mortem -- was it just too cold for them, or did the wet snow cause the reemay to cave in enough to cause a "wet blanket effect" of cold wet row cover on top of the plants? Perhaps we'll never know.

Nonetheless, we ate well from the garden tonight with Dana-Dee -- dried black beans from the fall harvest, along with some of our garlic and the last of the peppers, and some nettles fritters made with nettles that Alan froze. And for dessert, some OUTSTANDING pumpkin bread baked by D. from a "Tennessee Vining Pumpkin" that she bought at the farmers market.

Dana noted that I think about food a lot (it's true) and we discussed such nerdy topics as the history of the French Broad River and water catchment. A delightful evening.

And there are still plenty of greens coming on in the garden -- lettuces, kales, chards, and lots and lots of mustards, bless their hearty little souls.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Al Gore on Energy Options and "Clean Coal"

KT sent me this great snip of the recent Digg interview with Al Gore - in this segment, he's speaking about energy options, including the myth of "clean coal."

Gore says here that "the phrase clean coal is an oxymoron" and is in truth "a very, very cynical, massive advertising campaign by the coal companies to promote the meme 'clean coal, clean coal' and it really is deceptive." He also offers clear options for energy independence and a sustainable energy policy:

Worth a watch:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Locro de Papas

Christopher and I were lucky enough to travel to Ecuador at the end of 2006 to visit my sister Mary, who was traveling and WWOOFing in various parts of South America at the time.

Of course two of the things I was most excited about in Ecuador were eating and talking with people about food. I loved the traditional foods of the high Andean areas of Ecuador. In general, the food was hearty, hot, creamy, and delicious. I did not sample the cuy, whole roasted guinea pig with teeth and all, so some would say my Ecuadorian culinary experience was incomplete, but I did eat Locro de Papas as often as possible.

Left, above: I ate my first bowl of Locro in this plaza in Quito, the capital of Equador. It was our first evening in the capital, and I savored my Locro with a hot mug of coca leaf tea. Mmmm!

Left, below: the view from the cafe.

Locro de Papas, often just referred to as Locro, is a creamy potato soup that varies from region to region, town to town, and probably household to household in Ecuador. And it is delicious. The Andean region is the ancestral potato homeland, and potatoes and quinoa are still the staple crops in the high mountains of Ecuador. Ecuadorians have had thousands of years of practice in preparing potatoes, and have perfected potato cookery as far as I am concerned. Every menu I saw in Ecuador included potatoes in one form or another, and Locro was almost always offered.

Lorco, a traditional dish tracing back to ancient times, is a great example of a food tradition that evolved to suit precise regional conditions. When you are high up in the Andes, there is no more perfect food than a hot, creamy, stick-to-your-ribs potato soup. In every spoonful, I felt like I could taste the flavors of generations of Locro spooned out of big ceramic kettles by thousands of grandmothers. What all of the Locro variations had in common were potatoes and salt. From that base, there were lots of variations.

My favorite Locro, eaten at around 11,000 feet in elevation, included homestead cheese from the town we were in, local potatoes, and Andean quinoa. It was served with fresh greens from a kitchen garden out back.

We took these photos of the mountains around the town where I ate my favorite bowl of Locro. There were thermal springs bubbling out of the ground, snow- capped volcanoes towering above us, and Andean Condors soaring overhead. I savored a perfect bowl of soup while Christopher feasted on local trout caught about 1/4 mile from our table. Definitely a peak food experience.

I've been working on a Locro recipe, and finally have one to share. This is definitely the time of year for Locro here, with local potatoes widely available and cold, wet weather driving us inside in search of hot soup. Here goes:

Locro de Papas with Quinoa

  • 1-2 cups cooked quinoa
  • 8 cups of water
  • 4 pounds potatoes, peeled and “cracked” – see below
  • ¼ cup butter
  • Salt to taste – at least 1 tsp
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1-2 finely chopped yellow chili peppers or yellow sweet peppers
  • Fresh ground pepper to taste
  • 1/2 pound Muenster or other very melty and mild cheese, grated

  1. Cook the quinoa ahead of time. I like to cook up a big batch and use some of it for this and the rest for other meals throughout the week. I have been using heirloom red quinoa lately, but you can use any variety.
  2. Prepare the potatoes: rather than cutting them up, “crack” them like so: push the tip of a knife into the raw potato and then twisting it so that the potato breaks. This preparation supposedly releases more starch from the potatoes for a creamier texture.
  3. In a large, heavy pot, heat the butter and stir in the salt, paprika, and cumin.
  4. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat until the onions are soft. Add the chili peppers or sweet peppers and cook for a few more minutes.
  5. Add the water and the cracked potatoes and bring to a boil. Simmer until tender, about 30-40 minutes.
  6. Mash up the potatoes with the back of your spoon or a potato masher as you stir. Once the potatoes have released their starch and the soup has taken on a creamy texture, reduce the heat to low and continue to cook, stirring from time to time, until the potatoes disintegrate completely.
  7. While you are cooking the soup, roast the whole head of garlic, peel, and then mash the soft, roasted cloves into the soup pot.
  8. Continue cooking on low as long as you like. About 10 minutes before serving add grated cheese and cooked quinoa, and turn off the heat. The residual heat of the pot and soup should be enough to melt the cheese without overcooking it. You can also add a bit of milk, half-and-half, or cream at this stage if you like.
  9. Stir a few last times and season to taste with salt and pepper.
  10. Serve topped with generous slabs of fresh avocado.

~ I recommend cooking Locro in a cast iron Dutch oven. Any big, heavy pot will do, but a seasoned cast iron Dutch oven is the best.

~ The peppers are optional. I have been using the last of the “Golden Treasure” peppers left over from our late summer garden.

~ I used Muenster cheese because it’s the right texture since I can’t get Ecuadorian cheeses here. You could also use mozzarella or queso fresco.

~ The roasted garlic is a departure from traditional recipes - you can leave it out if you like.

Left: Me looking into the kitchen garden of the purveyor of my favorite Locro, at 11,000 feet in the Andes.

So Alan and Christopher and I shared big bowls of Locro de Papas here in our own mountains last eve--we had ours with chunky bread, a salad from the garden topped with radish relish, pumpkin seeds, and dried pears from Hans.

It was in the low twenties outside as we sat snug around the kitchen table with our soup bowls. It had flurried all day and low clouds were settling in the valley around us. The creamy sensation of spoonfuls of Locro de Papas in our mouths and the warm satisfied feeling of bellies full of hearty soup created a perfect comfort-food experience on a cold, wet night in the mountains.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Keep Farmers Farming

I serve on the Board of Directors of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP), the organization that produces the Local Food Guide, helped get the Asheville City Market off the ground, and does lots more to promote local food in western NC. If you don't know what ASAP does, you're not alone. Best known as "the people behind that green thousands of miles fresher bumpersticker" or "the people who put out the Local Food Guide," ASAP has been quietly creating and expanding markets for local food all throughout this region. If you live in western North Carolina and you've enjoyed local produce in recent years, you may have ASAP to thank, in addition to your farmers, whether you know it or not! ASAP also does a lot to increase access to local food, including coordinating a farm to school program, Growing Minds.

Danny McConnell, a local farmer who inspires me bigtime, is also an ASAP Board Member. He wrote the letter posted below, an appeal to "keep farmers farming."

I am posting this with deep gratitude for all of those growing food in these parts, and in hope that all of us who care about local food, healthy local economies, and preserving farming as a way of life will support the organizations working hard to create systems to support local food.

Click here to make a donation to ASAP.

Click on the image below to enlarge Danny's letter and read it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Spicy Radish Relish ... Further Adventures in Refrigerator Pickling

French Breakfast Radishes harvested last month

Radishes have been one of the few vegetables growing like gangbusters in the garden over the past 6 weeks, along with lettuce and the heartier greens. So it's high time we figured out what to do with them.

Through the spring, summer, and fall our garden produced a fair number of radishes (here's a post from a previous radish profusion last Spring). Throughout the year, in came the radishes, easy and reliable. I threw slices into krauts and added them to crocks of brine-pickled veggies, and Christopher grated them with carrots onto his salads. By the time the late fall bumper crop of radishes peaked, we had a backlog of radishes. So I was motivated to search for a way to use or preserve them in bulk.

Christopher's step-father once mentioned an old Mother Earth News recipe for radish relish that had been a favorite of theirs when they used to have a big garden. I looked in lots of books and on lots of websites, and found a wide variety of recipes, including the very same original Mother Earth News recipe, which contained way too much sugar for me to take it seriously.

I did discover that radish relishes are a popular condiment in a number of Asian cuisines, usually made as short-term "refrigerator pickles" without heat processing, and stored for weeks at a time in the fridge.

Loyal readers will recall my affection for refrigerator pickles (here's a post from last summer on refrigerator pickling). I like making them because they're easy, quick, and don't require heating up your kitchen with a steamy canning process. Making a refrigerator-relish from radishes seemed like the perfect short-term preservation method, and a good way to process a quantity of radishes at once.

So here's the recipe I created based on my radish relish research--mine is unlike most that I found in that it has no sugar, lots of ginger and garlic, and all good-for-you ingredients:

Spicy Radish Relish

Makes about 1 1/2 quarts

  • 20 medium-sized radishes
  • 1-3 inches fresh ginger root
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 tsp whole mustard seeds
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • A few grinds of fresh pepper
  • 4 Tbs honey

Radishes shredded and on their way to becoming relish.
  1. Wash and shred radishes – either with a hand grater or in the food processor – and put them in a bowl. Grind some pepper onto the radishes.
  2. Grate ginger finely and press garlic with a garlic press.
  3. In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, ginger, garlic, mustard seeds, and honey; bring to a boil.
  4. Pour the hot liquid over the radishes. Cover and refrigerate. Let the flavors mingle and mellow at least overnight before using.
The final product is pretty and potent. You can use it as a topping for stir fries and salads, or mixed in with cooked greens as a side dish, or as a palate-cleansing garnish on a sushi platter.

You could vary this recipe by adding onions and some finely chopped celery if you had some on hand and were so inclined.

After smelling and tasting this stuff, I can't imagine a better condiment for cold season. The pungent, spicy smell and taste seem like they would be the perfect little something on your plate when you have a cold or are coming down with one. The spicy radishes and mustard are great for clearing the sinuses, and the ginger and garlic are classic tonic herbs for winter. Add to that some immune-boosting local honey, and the healing power of apple cider vinegar, and you have another great tonic food - a kitchen concoction that is both delicious and good for what ails you.

The finished relish ready to marinate in the fridge

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Making Mole - Tasty Tonic Food for Winter Well-Being

This year we grew heirloom Pasilla Bajio peppers (pictured at left), a mild, sweet-hot, long, wrinkley, dark green pepper that turns deep chocolate brown as it ripens. Its one of the many types of peppers traditionally used in Mexican mole.

Mole (pronounced "moe-lay") means "sauce" in Spanish - read more about mole here.

Last night, I decided to try my hand at a mole paste, which I will describe after the following disclaimer:

*Disclaimer!* There are an almost infinite variety of highly personalized mole recipes, incorporating regional traditions and generations of mole-making expertise handed down from mothers to daughters, guarded as family secrets, perfected and adapted, with each mole sauce embodying the unique culinary magic and heritage of the person (usually a woman) stirring the pot. This is NOT one of those moles. I humbly acknowledge that it is a non-traditional, bastardized, white-Southern-hippie-anarchist-vegetarian-novice first time gringa mole. Traditional moles can require a whole day in the kitchen, sweating and toasting and grinding and stirring. Mine takes a little more than an hour. Although I think it tastes pretty darn good, it is not in the same universe with traditional moles.

Peppers toasting in the skillet

So. This mole only uses one kind of pepper rather than 3, 4, or 5 varieties. If you use more varieties, you can achieve complex subtle pepper flavor combinations. I also used only pumpkin seeds rather than the blends of almonds, sesame seeds, and other seeds and nuts that may be included in other moles. I wanted to use as many local ingredients as possible, and pumpkin seeds are nutritious, affordable, and locally plentiful. I used honey instead of sugar, and left out the chopped bread/cookies/crackers and/or tortillas that some moles include.

Spices awaiting grinding

Without further ado, here is the recipe:

Gringa Mole Paste

Makes about 1 quart

20 Pasilla Bajio peppers
20 cloves of garlic
3 oz. raisins*
2 generous tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. oregano
1 Tbs. cumin
1/2 tsp. ground cloves or 7 or 8 whole cloves
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4- 1/2 tsp cayenne powder depending on how hot you like it
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/3 cup honey
1 cup pumpkin seeds
3 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate

  • Wash the peppers under cold water. Remove the seeds and stems.
  • Heat up a cast iron skillet and toast the peppers in batches. Use a tiny bit of oil in the skillet -- I used virgin coconut oil. Cook the peppers just until they soften and brown a bit. This is going to make your house smell really good.
  • Meanwhile, roast the garlic. I usually do this in the toaster oven. Leave the garlic unpeeled to roast - you can peel it after roasting.
  • When all of the peppers are cooked, put them in a large bowl and cover with boiling water. Add the raisins and cover with a cloth or dishtowel. Let sit for 1/2 hour or until everything is soft and the raisins are "plumped up."
  • While you are soaking the peppers and raisins, toast the pumpkin seeds lightly, until they're golden brown.
  • Drain the peppers and raisins and retain the soaking water.
  • Grind all of the spices together with a mortar and pestle.
  • Melt the chocolate. Peel the garlic.
  • Blenderize or process in a food processor the pumpkin seeds, honey, garlic, and spices, adding a little soaking water to make the blades turn if necessary. Add the peppers, raisins, and melted chocolate, and continue adding soaking water until you achieve the desired consistency.

The final result should be a thick paste that you can dilute with water, stock, or tomato sauce (or any combination of these), adding sauteed or roasted onions and garlic to make delectable sauces for whatever you are cooking up.

Throw a dollop in your refried beans, use it to spice up burritos or enchiladas, mix with stock and tomato paste as a spicy/sweet marinade for baked beans, or use in the traditional way, as a sauce in which to slow-cook meats.

Mole paste can be refrigerated and used over a few weeks, or frozen and used through the winter as a way to bring your summery chili peppers from the garden to the table through the cold months.

Finished mole paste in a jar

More to Mole than Fabulous Flavor?

As I was making the mole, I was thinking about what a great tonic food it is -- a medicinal combination of foods perfect for fall and winter well-being. The ingredients are a perfect nutritional blend to help keep the immune system strong through the changing seasons and to keep us feeling good physically and emotionally as winter arrives.

Local honey and garlic are well-known immune boosters.
Peppers contain capsaicinoids, which trigger the release of endorphins which can help fight seasonal depression. Capsaicinoids also increase metabolism, which seems perfect for the arrival of winter, when we have less opportunity for physical activity. Raisins are high in phenols--powerful antioxidants that are also found in chocolate. Pumpkin seeds contain phytochemicals with anti-inflammatory properties, and are packed with protein and nutrition. Dark chocolate is full of the aforemmentioned antioxidants, and triggers the release in the brain of oxytocin, a hormone and neurotransmitter that is linked to feelings of well-being.

Oxytocin is a facinating biological phenomenon -- it's released during breast feeding and is linked to mother-child bonding. It is also released by hugging, social bonding, sexual arousal and orgasm, and by sharing food in low light. The release of oxytosin is triggered more by certain foods than others. At the top of the list of foods that cause the body to release oxytosin: chocolate and peppers.

Could mole be the perfect fall and winter tonic food to supercharge your immune system, keep you healthy, boost your metabolism and lift your spirits?

Maybe so. But beyond the punch it packs for winter wellness, it is worth eating for taste alone. My nontraditional gringa batch turned out rich, complex, and fabulously delicious. I used some last night to make a hearty stew of black beans, onions, greens, and sweet peppers, which we served with mashed sweet potatoes, guacamole, raw cheddar cheese, sour cream, and tortillas. Mmmmm.


*A note on raisins: I used all organic ingredients for my version, but if you're not going to go 100% organic, you might consider making sure that at least your raisins of the organic persuasion, since non-organic raisins, affectionately known in my family as "pesticide pellets" contain high levels of toxic chemicals.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

One Day in the Century of the Small: Broadforking

''Who knows, perhaps that's what the 21st century has in store for us. The dismantling of the Big. Big bombs, big dams, big ideologies, big countries, big mistakes. Perhaps it will be the Century of the Small. Perhaps right now, this very minute, there's a small god up in heaven readying herself for us. Could it be? Could it possibly be? It sounds finger-licking good to me.''

-Arundhati Roy, The Greater Common Good

At left: Christopher uses a borrowed broadfork to cultivate a new garden bed for garlic.

Several years ago I wrote an article for our local weekly newspaper with some policy ideas for our new City Council. To my chagrin, the editor changed the title at the last minute to "Think Big." I winced when I saw the article in print. "No! If anything I would have called it 'Think SMALL!' " I remember wailing.

I've never bought the bombast of the "bigger, faster, newer" credo of American consumer culture -- and when I started hearing about the Small is Beautiful movement, it resonated with my intuitive sense of the value of simplicity. Then, some years ago, I read Arundhati Roy's essay quoted above (the link above goes to a site where you can read the whole thing online, or you can buy the beautiful print edition here).

Yes! The century of the small. The century of the simple. The century of slowness. The century of worms and microbes hard at work in a compost pile. The century of handmade objects rubbed smooth by many hands. A time for clothespins and cast iron to replace driers and microwaves. An era when sing-alongs and craft circles and clothes swaps become more popular than video games and Walmart and designer labels. A time of small farms, small businesses, and small homes. The century of the grassroots. So may it be!

The broadfork is a great tool for this new century. It is a perfect example of appropriate technology: a small-scale, simple tool powered by human energy rather than petroleum, a tool that works at a pace and on a scale that are in step with the rhythms of the natural world.

Appropriate technology is one of the concepts illuminated in the famous 1973 collection of essays by British economist E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered . Schumacher and others in the Small is Beautiful and related simplicity movements came to define appropriate technology with four characteristics: appropriate technologies are simple, small in scale, low-cost and non-violent.

Earlier this year, I wrote about one of the non-violent aspects of deciding not to till--saving the salamanders. There are much wider environmental benefits to cultivating the soil by hand -- of course there is the energy savings (or more accurately, the substitution of human, worm, salamander, and microbe energy for petro-energy), but also soil ecology and soil structure are preserved, and erosion and runoff are less likely. So it's one less contribution to the more subtle, creeping violence of human activity damaging systems of life on the planet. And to me it just feels right. Working the soil by hand, I feel more peaceful, more graceful, more in harmony with the earth and its webs of overlapping systems and patterns and cycles than I do when using a loud, fast, petro-powered machine.

So far, all of the cultivation that we have done on our 5 acres has been either by double-digging raised beds or by broadforking mounded wide rows. We've cultivated about 1,200 square feet so far in the past two years with these simple tools.

Left: Christopher takes stock of 40 foot-long wide row he's broadforked.
Below: Triumphant after double- digging our first two raised beds in 2006.

We also use heavy mulches on all of these beds year round to protect soil nutrients and conserve water, and we add compost and organic matter to the beds before every new planting. Most of our beds are polyculture gardens/ companion plantings, as well, rather than just rows of a single crop. We've been able to space plants much more closely than you would in row-cropping by using these methods, and we've grown a lot of food in these beds.

Above: planting in a double-dug raised bed, Spring 2008

No-till combined with mulches, raised beds, and soil and water conservation techniques are all elements of what is sometimes referred to as "biointensive" farming. "Biointensive" is a word that is defined in a variety of different ways by people practicing different methods, but here's more about biointensive farming from an organization whose definition pretty much matches mine. And there are lots of great links on the wiki page for "biointensive" -- including information about French intensive methods and other old biointensive traditions and further reading.

Biointensive polyculture in a "keyhole" bed in our garden this summer

I believe that all food-growing was what is now called biointensive for most of human history, just as all food was organic until relatively recently. (See Farmers of Forty Centuries for more about how people grew food for thousands of years before modern farming took a turn for the worse).

Modern, petro-powered, non-intensive farming was an invention of 20th century America -- coming out of a paradigm based on the false assumption of unlimited resources. Monoculture became the standard way growing food, and farmers started departing from traditional methods -- spreading out, depleting the soil, adding petrochemical fertilizers rather than organic materials, and wasting lots and lots of water, not to mention washing away precious topsoil. The radically different idea behind the various biointensive approaches is to conserve and even increase resources, including topsoil, soil ecology, water, and energy.

So, back to our own Adventures in Smallness and Simplicity: Christopher borrowed a broadfork from the Warren Wilson garden crew, and over the last month or so cultivated about 480 square feet for garlic beds. In these beds we planted 1,489 cloves of garlic, of thirteen different varieties. Sometime next July or so we'll harvest almost 1,500 heads of garlic.

Before we dig beds with either a broadfork or shovels, we let the areas to be cultivated sit under thick cardboard and straw sheet mulch for at least a few months -- preferably for six months or more over the winter with plenty of rain. Worms, microorganisms, macroorganisms (mice and salamanders, for instance), moisture and rotting organic matter do a lot of work for us before we break ground, and then we pick up with the broadfork or shovels where they left off.

We figure that from start to finish (clearing, sheetmulching, cultivating, and prepping) this method takes about 10 person hours per 100 square feet of garden bed. It's time and labor intensive, but only the first year. Once permanent beds are double-dug or otherwise deeply cultivated, and if they are maintained with mulch and protected from being walked on, they are much easier to re-work in future years. We've planted in some of our raised beds 4 or 5 times by now, and it requires almost zero time and energy to cultivate the beds after the first year if they've been protected. We're planning to cultivate another 500 square feet or so with these methods before spring comes.

It works. And it feels good. And as my Dad tells me my grandfather used to say, "when you go slowly, there's more time to correct your mistakes."

Long live slowness! Welcome to the century of small and simple technology! Let's bring it!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

November Garden Photos

This is the first year we've attempted a winter garden, with the help of lots of mulch and reemay (floating row cover). It's amazing to still be eating from the garden at this time of year!

Things growing in the garden now: onions, leeks, garlic, beets, chinese cabbage, bok choy, dino kale, red russian kale, chards of all sorts, lettuces, collards, cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, radishes (daikon, French Breakfast, and Black Spanish round), mustards, celery, and carrots.

Top to bottom: Italienscher lettuce, mustard greens, chard, leeks, more lettuce, red russian kale, 250 onions of various types, and beets.

Sheet mulch in action and the miracle of reemay

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The NEXT C2C revolution: Compost to Compost

I was reading Grit magazine the other day, and came across an article about food waste. I haven't really thought about food waste in a long time. I've composted my kitchen scraps ever since I've had a kitchen of my own, and not wasting food has always been both an economic and an environmental imperative for me.

And through many years of growing, preparing, and savoring food, I've developed what is really an intimate connection with food. When you're intimate with something, throwing it in the landfill doesn't really seem right. So it's been years since I've thought much about why composting is good and wasting food is bad. It just seems like a given. But it's good to revisit the givens from time to time.

According to a study by the Department of Agriculture, a quarter of all edible food in the United States goes to waste. Another study by the EPA found that 30 million tons of food is thrown away every year, with 98% of that ending up in landfills.

Food thrown away by a typical American family each month. Click on the image to see details...

We waste about $100 billion worth of food every year, and we spend about a billion dollars a year to dispose of food waste. Think what we could do with $101 billion! Solar roofs! Health care! Organic food in school cafeterias!

Thinking about all of this reminded me of Pete Seeger's classic rendition of Bill Steele’s Garbage. I probably listened to the version Pete did with Oscar the Grouch hundreds of times with my siblings on the Pete Seeger & Brother Kirk Visit Sesame Street LP back in the day. This is exactly what the album cover looked like. Now I call that successful indoctrination.

Since the days when Pete sang about Mr. Thompson's steak and mashed potatoes heading off to the landfill, things have only gotten worse. The amount of trash buried in landfills has doubled since 1960.

And there's more. I came across a great article by Jonathan Bloom with a lot more information on the environmental, economic, and cultural consequences of our national food-wasting habit. Here's a snip:

"Wasting food squanders the time, energy, and resources — both money and oil — used to produce that food. Increasingly, great amounts of fossil fuel are used to fertilize, apply pesticides to, harvest, and process food. Still more gas is spent transporting food from farm to processor, wholesaler to restaurant, store to households, and finally to the landfill."

Bloom also points out:

"Food rotting in landfills contributes to global warming. Landfills are America’s primary source of methane emissions, and the second-largest component of landfills are organic materials. When food decomposes in a landfill, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. Furthermore, wet food waste is the main threat to groundwater or stream pollution in the event of a liner leak or large storm."

And it can take years for food to biodegrade in a landfill, while it takes weeks or months in the compost bin. And compost is such a precious resource! I hate the thought of perfectly good compost ingredients languishing in the landfill.


With all of the buzz about
Cradle to Cradle design, we need to think of a similarly catchy phrase for eliminating food waste and all of the related problems that come from thinking of food as a cheap and disposable commodity. I propose Compost to Compost or maybe Dirt to Dirt (D2D?).

For further reading....

Here's the Grit article.

Here's the Jonathan Bloom article: The Food Not Eaten.

And here's info about public composting programs in North Carolina.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama Victory Edition

A friend left me a message this morning that said, "Good morning. Welcome to the first day of the new paradigm."

I hope we look back on today and find that it really was the beginning of a new era!

My prayer is that we hold in our hearts the knowledge of how it feels when the efforts and hopes of so many people come to fruition. And that we stay organized, continuing to work together to create real change. And that we honor each other, the planet, and the web of life more and more each day. And that our new president holds as sacred all of the hopes for a just and sustainable world that motivated so many people to work so hard in this election. And that one day voting is the very least thing that people do to shape their world as we all come to understand our own power and our connections to one another and the planet. So may it be!

My photos from election day in Asheville (sampled above) are up on picasa here and some of the greatest hits of Asheville for Obama (sampled at left) are here.