Categories
Kitchen Garden

Deconstructing Tacos

Breakfast Taco July 26, 2020.

We own certain culinary dishes.

Learned from a recipe or experience, we repeat the cooking process and evolve it into something we enjoy. Such dishes become our signature home cuisine.

Grandmother had a signature dish: lemon chicken. I watched her make it several times in her apartment and saw how she added the lemon. She wrote the recipe on the back of an envelope for me and later I discovered the lemon went missing. It goes to show the importance of memory and experience in home cooking.

I love a delicious taco. In our household tacos vary from meal to meal. My favorite fillings are either similar to what Mother made, or greens and black beans in chili sauce. Tacos are easy to make yet the origins of the dish are complex. Taco ingredients adjust well to seasonal variation in a kitchen garden.

In 2018 I found a video by Rick Bayless in his Taco Tuesday series. I viewed the video multiple times then repeated every element of the process until learning it. Once learned, improvisations based upon on-hand ingredients and the imagination became possible. This is what cooking a personal cuisine is about. Black beans, kale, chili sauce, a cooking liquid, and toppings on a tortilla are foundational elements to making a delicious taco.

Tortillas

Almost everyone gets help with tortillas. By that I mean we don’t grow our own corn and grind it into masa. I make my own corn tortillas from masa and get uncooked flour tortillas from the wholesale club. There is nothing like a freshly made tortilla.

Black Beans

At some point I hope to grow enough black beans to use my own. In the meanwhile, I buy eight-packs of 15 ounce cans of USDA organic black beans from the wholesale club.

Kale

A person could use any type of greens in a taco: chard, collards, spinach, mustard greens, lambs quarters, arugula, broccoli leaves, beet leaves, kohlrabi leaves or turnip greens. I grow an abundance of kale, preferring Winterbor and Redbor, seeds which I get from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine. Kale really makes the dish so that’s my go-to ingredient. Fresh is great yet frozen leaves serve equally well. Tacos provide another outlet for the bushels of kale I produce each year.

Chili Sauce

I’m new to making my own chili sauce. I’ve been using Guajillo and New Mexican dried chilies and have been happy with both. I’ve been growing my own Guajillo chilies yet haven’t mastered the agriculture to produce a dried chili with the consistency of what can be purchased. I hope to master the skill although I’m only in my second year. I made a batch of Guajillo chili sauce on Wednesday with the last of the chilies purchased from Mexico, fresh garlic from the garden, Mexican oregano, black pepper, salt and a pinch of sugar. This sauce holds the dish together.

Cooking Liquid

Our kitchen produces a number of culinary liquids as a byproduct of making something else. I don’t just dump it down the drain. Every time I open a jar of canned tomatoes I strain them to give a head start in preparing tomato sauce. When I make salsa, I also strain excess liquid to prevent it from being too watery. These liquids get mixed into a one liter bottle in the ice box. During preparation, chili sauce is diluted with enough liquid to cook the kale. In the cooking process most of the moisture evaporates leaving another layer of flavor by using my culinary liquids instead of water.

Toppings

I use Mexican-style cheese from the wholesale club to finish making a taco. Tacos get topped with freshly made salsa, green onions, fresh onions, fresh tomatoes, pickled jalapeno peppers, prepared chilies, pickled garlic, finely sliced lettuce, shredded radishes or Hakurei turnips. The tomatillo harvest is coming in so salsa using them is in season. Fresh cilantro is also a go-to ingredient.

Preparation

Beans and greens taco filling is easy to make. Heat a cup of chili sauce in a large frying pan (Recipe for mine is here). Add a cup of water or other cooking liquid that goes with Mexican cuisine and incorporate. Add a bunch of kale that has been de-stemmed and torn into small bits. When the kale wilts, add a drained 15 ounce can of black beans. (Optional: Use a potato masher or the back of a spoon to break up some of the beans and give the taco filling a smooth consistency and texture). Once the kale is thoroughly cooked and incorporated it’s time to assemble tacos!

I’ll make these suggestions: begin with a hot tortilla on a heated serving plate. Put some salsa or hot sauce down first. Add the filling, generous but not too much. We want to be able to hold and eat the taco without everything spilling out. Cheese goes next so it will melt. Add toppings according to what’s in season or available and serve.

Cooking is an experience more than an explanation. We relish choices we make producing each plate of food yet it is not about consumption and the process that created ingredients on hand. Cooking, as much as anything we do, is about living in those moments. When the pandemic is over and we return to our new lives it is important to know who we are. Part of me is making these signature tacos.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Garden Tour July 2020

Some photos from the garden taken Friday, July 10.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Garlic Harvest 2020

Heads of curing garlic, July 2020.

Planted last October, on July 2 it took about an hour to harvest the crop of 50 head of garlic. It was the biggest garlic harvest we’ve had in our home garden.

The variety comes from my friends Susan and Carmen who in succession, over 25 years, have been growing and selecting seed from the annual crop to produce it. Garlic doesn’t take much more effort than proper planting, weeding, harvesting and curing. The genetics and culture of producing it are everything though.

Garlic Patch in Late April 2020

If everything goes well, I plan to keep the best third of the garlic heads to use for seeding next year’s crop. By doing so I’ll continue the process started so long ago on that nearby farm.

Just so you know, our household doesn’t have any problems with vampires.

Categories
Writing

Food Policy Council

Lake Macbride on June 24, 2020

On Jan. 30 I received email notice of my appointment to the Johnson County Food Policy Council. My application was chosen by the board of supervisors to complete a term ending June 30.

I declined to re-apply at the end of my term.

The idea of having a food policy council may have been good when it was organized. During my brief tenure, each meeting seemed a random conglomeration of thoughts, statements and opinions heading down a dead end street. To a person, everyone I met while serving was talented, including the county-paid coordinator Ilsa DeWald. So what was wrong about the food policy council?

The goal of fostering relationships between farmers, buyers and government in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids region is important. For their part, non-conventional farmers are a well-organized group of entrepreneurs that take advantage of networking within Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Farm Bureau, the Farmers Union, and other organizations. If you know some of these farmers, they seem to all be talking to each other about everything, all the time. That’s really no different from any successful farmer, regardless of what they grow.

The challenge of a local food movement is establishing enough mass to be a meaningful presence. The kind of changes needed in our food system are complicated and require engagement by many organizations, businesses, and individuals. That includes entities beyond vegetable, meat and flower producers.

By far, large corporations dominate food sales in our region. Reducing their presence or market share is not a point of discussion for the Food Policy Council. Even if it were, there are not enough local food producers to compete with or challenge them. The basic tenets of consumer participation in financing the growing season on a farm, knowing the face of the farmer, and understanding how our food is grown are main attractions for people who choose local food for their kitchen. As recently as last week, many community supported agriculture projects continued to accept new members this summer: demand has not been enough to significantly disrupt grocery operations.

The highlight of my tenure was participation in an annual forum titled, Land Access and Beyond: How Can the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm Support Beginning and Current Farmers? By participation I mean I made lemonade, helped set up, and led a couple of discussion groups. The forum was well-attended by a diverse group of people.

The board of supervisors decided to develop the Historic Poor Farm and this has been part of discussions of the Food Policy Council. Access to land is important and the Poor Farm has enabled some beginning farmers along a path to land ownership. Supporting the Poor Farm is a worthy endeavor for the Food Policy Council.

Part of the inability to engage in a single direction was the coronavirus pandemic. It affected council members both those who farm and those who don’t, and threw a monkey wrench into the machinery of effective policy planning. While we met via video conference, that’s not the same as being together in person with all of the possible side conversations. If not for the pandemic, I might have a different view of the council’s work.

I was happy to do what I could to advance the cause of local food in our food system. I value my time on the Food Policy Council.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Get Milk?

Hiking buddy, June 23, 2020.

My farm friends with community supported agriculture operations take the coronavirus pandemic seriously.

On one farm the crew wears personal protective equipment while working and changed the interaction with customers to control exposure to spread of COVID-19.

On another, the farmers decided, before most planting began, to have the entire crew move to the farm and by self-isolating reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread. They also changed the interaction with customers and cancelled the annual potluck because they believe the coronavirus will not be controlled by autumn.

If any of my friends contracted COVID-19, it would have severe consequences for the operation, including the possibility of ceasing deliveries to customers, at least for a while.

While we deal with the coronavirus an explosion of insects is preparing to assault our garden. In the last 24 hours I observed Japanese Beetles, Colorado Potato Beetles, squash bugs, cabbage worms, and many other species. While the invasion was anticipated, I choose to grow organically so using commercial chemicals to hold them in abeyance is not an option. My main tools are vigilant inspections each morning, hand picking the bugs off the plants when I see them, and for the squash beetles, a mixture of castile soap diluted with water in a spray bottle. To be honest this is just part of nature, and I do my best to protect the yield, giving up as little as possible to insects.

I’ve been making a shopping trip every other week to the wholesale club. Yesterday would have been my day to go but after considering the produce from the garden and what was stored in our pantry and freezer, the only thing we needed was milk.

I’m not lactose intolerant. Maybe I shouldn’t be drinking fluid milk, but I do. With the pandemic it’s a bit stressful sourcing the next gallons. Really that’s all we needed in the grocery category. What to do?

Hell if I was spending 90 minutes driving across the lake, past the Trump bar and the jail Hillary house, near the convenience store where young male adults with large Confederate flags mounted on their pickup trucks congregate, past the correctional facility to the wholesale club where milk is cheap. Too much else was demanding my time.

The options in the small city near where I live did not seem safe from spread of the coronavirus. Three convenience stores sell milk and it’s fresh. The cashiers wear masks and have those plexiglass protectors at the register. It’s the customers with no PPE that cause concern.

There is a grocery store in town. Their milk is also fresh. I’ve not been there since the governor declared the pandemic emergency. The unknown is often an issue. It’s just a gallon of milk… were there better options than the unknown?

I wasn’t ready to give up. There is a dairy store in the next town where the milk comes from their cows. I remembered when they reopened early in the first phase they did curbside pickup. They were taking the risk of COVID-19 spread seriously. I drove the six miles, put on my mask and went in.

The store is always spotless. Three cashiers were all wearing masks, as were other customers inside. I didn’t feel like a freak with my mask, wearing one was accepted behavior. The milk cost more than double what it would have at the wholesale club. The added cost was worth it for the time and gasoline savings. It was also a stress reliever.

I got two gallons so I don’t have to go shopping again soon.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Sharing the Wealth

Neighborhood Kale and Collard Stand, June 15, 2020.

Yesterday’s kale harvest was big. To share the wealth I displayed some at the end of the driveway and posted the free give-away on Facebook.

Some of it was claimed, the rest returned to the garden via the composter.

Ten years ago I saved or preserved everything I grew in the garden. Any more I keep only enough to get us through to next year. I’ve visited root cellars filled with very old Mason jars of a garden’s preserves. That’s not who we should be. We take what we need and if we can’t give it away, leave the rest for compost.

Leafy green vegetables are not a favorite around here. I have regular customers who use it in smoothies or bake kale chips. Others prepare it traditionally as greens. The main use in our household is in tacos, soups and stir fries. When out of lettuce we make kale salad. Once in a while I add a leaf to a smoothie. I’m not a smoothie person. I tried kale pesto once and it was okay. Pesto with more flavor, like mustard greens, is better. For a gardener the main challenge is to grow just enough to meet needs. I cut back the space for kale to 18 plants this year. It is still too much.

Combine kale with kohlrabi, collards, mustard, spinach and chard and there is an abundance of greens this year. Next year I’ll use the planting space differently to more closely match what I grow with kitchen usage.

For now there is kale for all who want it.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Collards on Cornbread

Collards on Cornbread

Collard greens are easy to grow and the plants produce for a long season. Once one decides to include them in a garden there had better be a plan to use them.

The first picking, before little hungry insects arrive, is the best. Sorting leaves near the composter is a way to cull the best of the best. Yesterday I harvested two pounds of leaves and decided to make collards on cornbread for dinner.

The vegetarian recipe was a collaboration with people I know combined with a few internet searches. Traditionally the dish is made with pork so the issue of how to replace lard and the meat was a primary issue. This dish came out tasty tender.

Collard Greens

One pound stemmed collard leaves
One cup diced onions
One head finely minced garlic (5-6 cloves)
Tablespoon each butter and extra virgin olive oil.
Salt and pepper to taste
One teaspoon hot pepper flakes or fresh chilies if available (optional)
Three cups vegetable broth
One pint canned tomatoes or fresh if available

Measure one pound of stemmed collard greens and cut into half inch ribbons. Set aside.

In a Dutch oven heat one tablespoon each of extra virgin olive oil and salted butter. Once foaming subsides, add one cup diced onions and a finely minced head of garlic (5-6 cloves). Season with salt and pepper to taste and sautee until softened. Add a teaspoon of red pepper flakes (optional).

Once the onions become translucent, add the collards and three cups of prepared vegetable broth. Also drain the liquid from a pint of diced tomatoes into the pot. Bring the mixture to a boil and cover. Stir the greens every so often. Once the volume of the greens is reduced, reduce the heat to a simmer.

Cook until the leaves are tender, about two hours. Add diced tomatoes and continue cooking until they have warmed.

Spoon onto cornbread, including a generous amount of the cooking liquid.

We found the recipe to be quite satisfying and a welcome way to use produce from the garden.

Categories
Reviews

Book Review: Save Me the Plums

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl

I’d not heard of Ruth Reichl before a news reporter recommended this book. I had heard of Gourmet Magazine and have no memories of ever reading it.

I liked the book for these reasons:

It provides a window into the New York world of Condé Nast. As a Midwesterner New York seems exotic even though my brother in law lives there. It’s important to gain a broader understanding of the publishing world and to know something about it. Save Me the Plums provides that.

We all need some light summer reading to escape the sh*t storm our current politics, public health crisis, and climate crisis create in 2020. The food writing in Save Me the Plums is unlike anything I’ve read. While not sure of the attraction of something that tastes like sea foam, Reichl takes us into a world few of my cohort experience for themselves.

The book is well written and that makes a difference.

Recommend, especially if one is part of the broader American food movement. One wouldn’t want to be Ruth Reichl yet her story is interesting, different and valuable.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Weeding the Onion Patch

Kohlrabi greens with spring onions and garlic, steaming in vegetable broth.

I’m determined to grow shallots and onions this year. I took the solar powered radio to the onion patch, took down the fence, and weeded until it was done.

The onion starts purchased from the home, farm and auto supply store are growing but not yet forming bulbs. The shallots growing from seed look like they will be something, and soon three varieties of storage onions started from plants will need thinning so there is room for them to grow.

If the garden produces storage onions it would be for the first time. I’m following the guidance of my mentor so there’s hope of success in the form of a bin full of onions stored near the furnace over winter.

A few dozen onions from 2019 remain in the bin. I am so confident of onion success I’m planning to caramelize a big batch of them and transition to reliance on what I grow. More than anything, onions are a mainstay of our kitchen and growing them a key part of making our kitchen garden more relevant.

Among the weeds I found was lamb’s quarters, which grows in abundance without doing anything but planting other things. Lamb’s quarters grows everywhere in Iowa on its own. While culinarians forage these leaves to include in gourmet preparations, in a kitchen garden a cook needs only so many greens. I ate a few of the tender top leaves and composted the rest. They are a tasty green, less bitter than some I grow intentionally.

Around the country protests continue in the wake of videos of the May 25 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported large turnout for demonstrations in nearby Cedar Rapids and Iowa City last night. No one knows how long demonstrations will continue or how long it will take government to act on them. The expectation is government will act.

In 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and ensuing riots in American cities, it took six days for President Johnson to respond by signing the Civil Rights Act. I don’t see any such action coming out of the Trump administration whose reaction has been to build a fence around the White House and seek to retain power by winning the Nov. 3 election.

While we need to eat, the progress of my onion patch may be the least of our worries. What happened to George Floyd shouldn’t happen to anyone. There is systemic racism in the United States, and we must each do something to address it. What will be the enduring legacy of the Black Lives Matter movement? With our current federal government that remains an open question.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Rhubarb Crisp

Rhubarb Crisp

Someone asked for the recipe when I posted this photo in social media. I was taken aback.

There was no recipe, I just made it out of the rhubarb and my experience. In a kitchen garden we don’t open a lot of cookbooks.

Ingredients arrive from multiple sources and we consider them, make dishes and meals, using what is available in the ice box, garden, pantry, and our imagination. Experience comes into play. It is a way to source food, cook and eat that isn’t emphasized as much as its value warrants.

Living with a kitchen garden is as good a way to produce meals as I know. It takes some experience but rather than ask, “what is the recipe?” an alternative is “How would this product be made palatable, nutritious and tasty?”

Here’s how I responded to the question:

I saved and diced all the rhubarb that was in my CSA share. It filled this dish. In a mixing bowl I put the rhubarb, one scant cup of granulated sugar, a tablespoon of ground cinnamon, sprinklings of ground cloves and ground allspice, a pinch of salt and two tablespoons of all purpose flour and mixed until incorporated. I returned the mixture to the clean baking dish and sprinkled about one to two tablespoons of water on top. (If I was making apple crisp I would use lemon juice here. Rhubarb is already plenty tart).

For the topping, just use any that you like. This one has a stick of chilled, cubed salted butter, a cup of rolled oats, two thirds cup packed brown sugar and a pinch of salt. I use a pastry cutter to blend everything together, leaving it in chunks. Sprinkle the topping evenly and baked 35 minutes in a 375 degree oven.

That’s a recipe of sorts. If a person eats ice cream, a scoop on the side of a warm, just out of the oven serving of rhubarb crisp would be divine. Or as close to that as we humans can get.