Shiitakes!

We just picked our third large harvest of shiitake mushrooms from the logs we inoculated last summer with close to 1,000 shiitake plug spawn—an ingenious present from my sister. The first big crop came in the spring, then the logs went dormant again, producing only an occasional mushroom (frequently lost to slugs).

A lot of rain a couple of weeks ago resulted in very large mushrooms sprouting in our woods. Although we wouldn’t consider eating any of them, they did inspire us to check our shiitake logs. To our delight we found lots of mushrooms—and yesterday we picked even more.

Cherisse has been incorporating shiitakes into different dishes, however if we get another round we’ll have to dry some for winter use. That will carry us through until next spring when the logs (hopefully) begin again.

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Good food

Cherisse heard Michael Pollan speak at Brown University a couple years ago. During his talk he pulled out a Twinkie, which he said he’d carried around for years. It was still soft, and so presumably still “edible.” One of the points he continually makes is that we should eat real food, containing ingredients your grandmother might have found in her kitchen (not a product, like a Twinkie, composed of many unpronounceable—and unrecognizable—ingredients).

Another interesting food guru is Mark Bittman, whose cookbook Food Matters we refer to on a regular basis. Recently in the New York Times, Mark Bittman wrote a piece called “Pollan Cooks!” from an interview with Michael Pollan about his newest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Pollan talks about how we got away from cooking meals at home, and why it is crucial to our health, and even our way of life, to incorporate meal preparation back into our daily routine.  http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/17/pollan-cooks/?smid=pl-share

Cherisse and I cook almost all of our meals, rarely eating prepared or packaged foods. This started when I had to eliminate onions and garlic from my diet—take a look, they show up in almost every ingredient list of prepared foods.

Michael Pollan says in the interview that when you cook at home you use better quality ingredients. Eventually we started buying much of our food from the farmers’ market. Just a few of the myriad benefits include: superior taste, peak freshness (which has a direct correlation with taste), sustainable production methods (no pesticides, crop diversity, etc.), small carbon footprint, and supporting our local economy. In summer, when produce is plentiful, prices are low. (In winter, growing or storing food becomes costlier, and we see the prices increase as the months go by. However, we appreciate that our local growers can provide us with an expanding variety of fresh food in the dead of winter, when supermarkets sell food flown in from Chile.)

I feel that everything in life is a balancing act. We grow flowering plants and vegetables that get pollinated by our bees—the bees need the pollen and nectar, and the plants need the bees in order to flourish. Because we don’t use any chemical sprays, our beneficial insects survive, and the birds and bats keep all insects in check. We support our local growers and producers, and they in turn offer a wider array of good food for us to choose from.

Michael Pollan talks about an even broader balancing act. “If we decide to outsource all our cooking to corporations, we’re going to have industrial agriculture. And the growth of local, sustainable and organic food, and farmers’ markets, is going to top out if people don’t cook. Because big buys from big, and I have little faith that corporations will ever support the kind of agriculture we want to see. That’s why the most important front in the fight to reform the food system today is in your kitchen.”

On a more basic level, cooking at home is gratifying. In our busy lives we all still make time for what is important to us. We still spend money on the things we really want. Good food should be a top priority.

Our history in cookbooks

Recently we stumbled on something in the back of one of our cookbooks: a list of meals we had served to friends in Boston (where we lived after graduation), along with a few editorial comments. On a separate page were notes on wines we had purchased. Wine was new for us, and we had such a limited budget all of the bottles were inexpensive, yet we took our tasting notes very seriously.

We laughed so hard when we discovered these notations. But we were also reminded of friends from long ago, and happy times when everything was new.

“Gretchen Z to dinner: onion soup (Bandy secret recipe), champagne, beer, bread and GZ brought great salad. Orange-vanilla sorbet for dessert.”

“Jim G to dinner: tacos with beans, chicken (Jim couldn’t eat), lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, onions, beer, Bishops cake (burned), and orange and vanilla Haagan-Daz and coffee.”

Those are by no means the only annotations in our cookbooks. With every recipe we like, we make notes because we almost always make some adjustments (seasonings, more vegetables and less meat if meat is called for, less oil). I don’t think we’ve ever made the same dish exactly the same way, but if we like the results of our tinkering we try to record what we’ve done.

My favorite cookbooks are those where the author’s voice comes through. Mrs. Bentley’s cookbook is one of the best examples, because it is also handwritten in her perfect penmanship and she offers a wealth of advice. Mark Bittman provides great context for his recipes, as does Jane Brody.

In yesterday’s paper was a nice story called “Between the Recipes, Scribbles Speak Volumes.” Kate Murphy writes: “Ghosts linger in old cookbooks, possibly the most annotated form of literature. People who wouldn’t dream of writing in other books don’t hesitate to edit (‘add ½ t. cayenne’), write reviews (‘never again’) and even note special occasions (‘anniversary party ‘84’) next to recipes.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/30/dining/cookbooks-echo-with-the-wisdom-of-chefs-past.html?_r=0

Our cooking (and eating) life can be traced by perusing the recipe pages with the most stains, and the margin notes with our improvements.  Maybe it’s time to revisit some old favorites.

Organic foods

I kept hearing reference to a Stanford study claiming that there was no evidence that organic foods were more nutritious than conventionally grown food. When I finally read more about it, I was disgusted for so many reasons. Mark Bittman summed up most of the study’s flaws his succinct and reference-filled style. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/02/that-flawed-stanford-study/

Among the most flagrant flaws is the narrow definition of nutritious as simply “containing more vitamins.” “By which standard you can claim that, based on nutrients, Frosted Flakes are a better choice than an apple.” Bittman goes on to point out errors in the study, and mentions that Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute, which supported the research, received major financing from Cargill. There are two companies I can think of that would benefit the most from these findings. The other is Monsanto.

However, the organic label lost some of its luster for me as big business co-opted it. I prefer my foods grown or raised without pesticides, because I believe that they affect our health, and on a bigger scale, the health of our planet—in many ways we already know, but others I think we are only beginning to suspect. Besides health reasons, “organic” implied a humane benefit. Organic dairy cows, for example, were able to graze in open pastures. When demand surged for organic milk, some of the biggest food companies, and retailers, took notice. Kristin Wartman, in a Huffington Post blog wrote a great piece: “Organic Agriculture: Fifty (Plus) Shades of Gray.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristin-wartman/organic-agriculture_b_1894660.html . She talks about the differences between small to mid-scale farmers who go well beyond the USDA’s standards for organic, and “industrial organics.” “At one end of this scale are companies like Horizon Organic, which sells USDA-certified organic milk. Horizon is owned by Dean Foods, the sixth largest food company in North America. Large food corporations of this scale wield immense power to influence organic standards. Walmart, which sells the Horizon brand and is the largest retailer of organic milk in the country, has been involved in multiple lawsuits over the use of the word organic on various product labels and in the case of Horizon’s organic milk, whistleblowers found it was actually being produced in large-scale factory farms without adhering to organic standards, like access to pasture.”

Many of the farmers I buy from aren’t certified organic. For some, the cost of obtaining certification is prohibitive. However, they adhere to or exceed organic farming standards and, perhaps even more importantly, they are open and happy to share their practices with their customers. Pat’s Pastured, from whom I buy chicken, pork, and beef, uses rotational farming methods that enrich and preserve the soil. His animals have access to open space and graze or forage as they were meant to, and their end is brought about with as little stress on them as possible (although I realize that many believe that raising any animal for consumption is simply wrong).

The Stanford study seems at best willfully ignorant (and the subsequent media coverage was irresponsible, giving it far more attention than it warranted). Yet I don’t think consumers should accept an organic label on blind faith. The best way to learn about where your food comes from is to talk directly to the producer. If you can’t, then there should be complete transparency in how your food was raised, grown or prepared. And any company not willing to provide that transparency does not get my business.

Fabulous fare

These last couple of days I have been perpetually hungry. I ate so much (and so well) over the weekend, I think my stomach expanded and now won’t return to its more modest size.

Cherisse and I have just returned from the Common Ground Fair, in Unity, Maine. Unlike past years, we went only for the weekend. We stayed in Belgrade Lakes (inland, less than an hour from Unity) at one of the most comfortable inns I have ever stayed at—Wings Hill Inn. Run by a husband and wife, who do everything from greeting guests to preparing and serving outstanding meals, the inn is filled with thoughtful details.

The meals, though, are the principle reason I am already thinking of reasons to return. The menus change depending on what fresh (mostly local) foods are available. Breakfast comes with the room and is as good as I’ve had outside my own house. Saturday we had a baked apple so delicious I want to experiment with a few recipes at home. This was followed by a perfect omelet with Swiss chard, cheddar cheese and heirloom tomatoes. Sunday we enjoyed honeydew melon and multi-grain pancakes (only Cherisse’s are better) with plenty of real maple syrup.

Dinner is open to the public, with two seatings a night. Friday we arrived just in time for our 8 pm reservation. Tired from a busy work day and a really long drive, we were quickly revived by the five-course (beautifully paced) meal, served by the interesting and charming chef and innkeeper, Chris. Wonderful squash bisque (I used a piece of bread to get the last of it out of my bowl), and then a salad with greens so tender we knew they had just been picked. By the time we’d gotten to the entrees we’d begun to falter, but that didn’t stop us from devouring an incredible risotto with Swiss chard and tomatoes, and a twist on a coq au vin, using chicken thighs and legs (from local free-ranging chicken) served in a wonderful sauce over a truffle polenta. Tiny, perfect carrots rested on top of the dish. By dessert (which really deserved to be enjoyed on an empty stomach), we had already decided to dine at the inn Saturday night, and had made our menu selections.

The Common Ground Fair is also known for good food—the vendors go through a rigorous application process and must use local ingredients. (Coffee was not available until a few years ago…now locally roasted beans are served to thankful fair goers and vendors.) But the workshops and displays are the main attraction for us. This year we focused on our orchard which, with the exception of some peaches and two perfect Asian pears, has made a poor showing. Michael Phillips, an organic apple grower from northern New Hampshire, and author of a number of books, led two workshops that Cherisse attended (I went to the second only). We also listened to the head of MOFGA’s orchards who talked about “What We Do and Why” which was very helpful, since we have done so little for our fruit trees. I went to a great workshop on poultry health. My big regret was missing “Growing Heat Loving Plants in a Cool Climate” because I was looking through all of the vendor tents.

We bought a new clothes drying rack—this one has far more space than our old one, with an accordion-like top—and stocked up on maple syrup for the year (we buy two gallons from Strawberry Hill Farms, which usually carries us through until the following September). Cider and apples were in short supply because parts of Maine suffered the same weather fluctuation we had—early warmth which budded out the trees, followed by several days of freezing temperatures.

Somehow we never made it to the livestock tents this year—another disappointment. Yet we spent a very full day at the fair on Saturday. We were tempted to go back on Sunday, but opted instead for an early start home. We returned to happy animals (our—and their—friend Kris had stayed with them). As with everything to do with the outdoors, there is always next year for what we’ve left undone.

The fruitful month

June has strawberries, July blueberries. Both are eagerly anticipated. But it is early September when we enjoy an embarrassment of riches in fruit. Big, sweet, juicy peaches are still coming, at the same time as early apples. We can still find delicious cantaloupe at the farmers’ markets. (My mother and I just bought organic melons at the Stonington, Maine farmers’ market. Cherisse and I never had success growing melon—I thought because our season was too short in Rhode Island. However, if they can do it in Maine, we should be able to! Growing short-season melons is one of the workshops at the Common Ground Fair, coming up in a couple of weeks, and will be on our schedule.) We’ve been eating cantaloupe by the giant bowlful.

In addition to the two lone Asian pears on one of our trees, we found more at a farmers’ market in Putnam, Connecticut, just over the state line. These are crisp, very juicy and flavorful…good for eating straight or chopping up for a salad. Conventional pears are coming in too, and I like them sliced on salads, or better yet, poached and served warm on arugula, with toasted walnuts and crumbled blue cheese.

Since we primarily eat local fruit (with the exception of the occassional grapefruit in winter, shipped to the Pawtucket farmers’ market from a family farm in Florida), we are restricted by season. As a result, in winter we eat mostly apples—Appleland’s crisp-aire storage method makes local apples available up to Mother’s Day. We freeze a lot of blueberries for the winter, and this year Cherisse is trying her hand at canning some peaches. Yet for the most part we are like black bears packing it in for the hibernation months—eating our fill, until next year.

Asian pears

Food and friends

Despite the seemingly endless work staying on top of the pests in the garden (or perhaps trailing closely behind them would be more accurate), and attempting to keep nature from swallowing us with its persistent growth, we have passed some pleasant and restful days with family and friends.

One Saturday we spent almost an entire afternoon sitting at the picnic table with four friends. We ate good food, drank red wine (which seemed decadent but was lovely), talked and laughed.

Just last week my cousin came up with her family. We were a bit more active (thanks to 7-year-old Olivia and 4-year-old Maggie), although Oliver was by far the busiest representative of our household. Everywhere Olivia and Maggie went, Oliver followed close behind, showing off his swimming skills and running countless races. (However, in the last race, completely pooped, he stopped midway and waited for Olivia’s return lap.)

Maggie and Olivia are adventurous eaters. Cherisse had prepared the ingredients for her nime chow—a platter with shredded cabbage, kohlrabi and carrots, lettuce and mint, and cubes of tofu. Olivia not only correctly identified the tofu, she asked for some as a snack. When the nime chow rolls were ready, Maggie ate hers with unwavering focus, and then polished off each sliver of vegetable that had fallen onto her plate.

Of course vegetables were no substitute for what was perhaps the meal’s highlight—s’mores made over a bonfire. It was a happy day, for us…and the garden pests.

Growing in a changing climate

Last year our own blueberry bushes produced enough for us to eat steadily, with some left over to freeze. Not this year—we’ve picked only a few pints to eat (mostly in handfuls). We weren’t sure why: the bushes were fed in the spring with a special organic fertilizer for acid-loving plants, and the bees were busy pollinating the flowers. However, talking to the owners of Harmony Farms, we learned it’s been a tough year. In March there was the heat wave, followed by freezing temperatures, a very wet spring, and a very dry summer. Their blueberry bushes (and peach trees) started producing very early—they’ve been picking peaches more than a month ahead of schedule. The blueberries are smaller than usual this year, and softer. The real disaster for them was in their apple orchard. The trees flowered much too early because of the heat wave, and then the flowers were killed in freezing temperatures that lingered for too long. Little apples had formed, and at first they thought the trees would be okay. But the inside of each apple was black. So this year they won’t open the apple orchard for picking because their yield will be too small.

I have read that farmers and growers will need to adjust to our rapidly changing climate, altering their timetable for growing, or the types of crops they raise. However a farm with well established blueberry bushes, peach and apple trees, is at the mercy of weather.

Growing up, my sister and I had a wonderful babysitter who was in her 80s when she took care of us (although it wasn’t until she went to live with her son, when she was in her 90s, that my parents discovered how old she was). Whenever there was a weather anomaly, she would say, “We never should have sent a man to the moon.” We always laughed at that, but now her idea, that we shouldn’t have messed with the natural order of life on earth, seems almost prescient.

Growing mushrooms

For my birthday last December my sister gave me a crop of shiitake mushrooms, and today we got them started. Cathleen ordered plug spawn (1,000 plugs for each of us), and cut some of her smaller oak trees into 4-5 foot lengths. The logs, which sat for about two weeks, contain nutrients the shiitakes need to grow.

1,000 plug spawn
1,000 plug spawn

We drilled holes in rows along the logs, four inches apart.

Cherisse and Cathleen drilling holes
Cherisse and Cathleen drilling holes

We then began tapping in the plugs. (The dogs were exhausted.)

Inoculating the logs
Inoculating the logs
Tapping in the plugs
Tapping in the plugs
Tanner
Tanner
Finn
Finn

 

Oliver
Oliver

 

Koa
Koa

Finally we covered all the plug holes, the ends of the logs and any gashes in the wood with a food grade soy wax.

Applying wax
Applying wax

We will need to keep the logs moist, in order for the mushroom mycelium to grow and colonize the log. They will go dormant in the winter, and should begin to grow through the log next spring. All going well, we will have a lot of mushrooms to eat, dry, and share.

Inoculated logs
Inoculated logs

Asparagus

 

Asparagus

We ate our first big harvest of asparagus for dinner tonight. Growing asparagus requires a commitment to the future. Preparing the trenches is hard work (especially in our rocky soil). The plants need to be kept well weeded and fertilized. And you need to be patient. The first year after planting, all you can do is watch the beautiful spears pop out of the ground; you eat none of them.  The second year you get to pick a handful. The third year, a bit more. Not until the fourth year after planting can you harvest a full crop. That’s this year.

We planted purple asparagus (which turns green when you cook it). Just-picked asparagus has an intense flavor; definitely one of life’s many joys. Tonight we broiled them and put them on crusty bread with a good, sharp, melted cheese, and topped them with two fried eggs. Even competing with the other flavors, the asparagus dominated the meal. We’ve got many more harvests to come.