Friday, August 14, 2009

Ten Reasons Why I Volunteer on a Farm

10. To ask questions, and learn about bio-intensive agriculture.

9. Midafternoon snack break: Santa Claus Melon. It's indescribably good.

8. Little tomatoes warmed by the sun. They make you dance.

7. Someday I'll show up and the plants will be tall enough to shade out their own weeds. Someday...

6. Drinking wine out of wood-fired pottery.

5. I had no idea there were so many kinds of basil.

4. To remember that the best part of a salad actually is the greens.

3. To get out of the city and get my hands dirty doing something productive, outside in the sun.

2. Because local farms (and local farmers) are important to me.
1. To meet new wonderful people, like you! If you're in DC, and can meet up in Adams Morgan on Sunday (any Sunday!) at 12.30, come along!

Friday, August 7, 2009

In which I cook a GIANT zucchini.

I've been reading a lot lately about how to cook in season vegetables from the farmer's market, or your garden - well here's a vegetable we all come home to after a week-long vacation and have no idea what to do with! Yesterday at work, my coworker gave me a GIANT (like, 6 lb.) zucchini. How big? Check this out:

How the heck and I going to cook this thing? Well, one year when I was about 13 we came home from the family vacation in Maine to find zucchini just like this in the garden out back. Prevailing wisdom is that summer squash left to grow this big is stringy, tough, and bitter. Suitable for maybe grating into a zucchini loaf, and nothing else. I'm afraid to admit, I think we tossed ours. But my 13 year old head was buzzing with ideas... and that's when I came up with zucchini parm (like eggplant parm, only... you get it). Haven't had an opportunity to make it until now... no giant zucchini have crossed my path since that summer... UNTIL NOW!

Of course, I had to update the zucchini parm idea a little. For one thing, I had no mozzarella in the fridge. As I started thinking about recipes, I realized I better cut into this zucchini. This could be a battle.

My good chef's knife only made a dent. I switched to a bread knife for the benefit of the sawing motion. This thing is like a tree. And it smells more like a pumpkin than a zucchini! There were some seeds big enough to roast like pumpkin seeds (now there's a project for another day!), and the very center was stringy. So I made rounds.

Wave to some of my pottery in the background... hi garlic jar!

After dipping the rounds in egg & bread crumbs and frying, I decided to make these in individual tart pans, filling the center with a slice of tomato, also from my coworker's garden. (Thanks Alison!)

Then pesto. Then brie with herbs.

Then another round of zucchini with tomato.

Then bake at 350 for 20 minutes. YUM!

Yay! And... that was just half the zucchini.

Monday, August 3, 2009

A Call to Collaboration

I’ve often reflected about the convergence of sustainable agriculture, cooking, and pottery in my own life. But I’ve said little on the Garden Variety Philosopher about what it’s like to work in the nonprofit sector. When we work with communities in the nonprofit world, especially communities in trouble, our first step is to stop identifying needs and gaps and resource deficits and to start identifying assets, connections, networks of influence that can help achieve great things. We need to start looking at the nonprofit community itself, and DC in particular, in the same light – and start collaborating to make this a better city.

Here is a case study. Today, I find myself in the middle of four local DC communities that have so many growing opportunities to collaborate: local farms, artisans, restaurants, and nonprofits. Every day, new ties emerge.

We know we have common ground. Because of the work of pioneering organizations like DC Central Kitchen and Greyston Bakery, nonprofits are already working together with restaurants and catering companies to employ & train an underserved population as entry level culinary professionals. Volunteering at EcoFarm, I see that local farmers are working together to market their produce directly to restaurants throughout DC. On Sunday, the farmer’s market donates leftover perishable produce to the Capital Area Food Bank. Local pottery studios donate students’ seconds to soup kitchens to use as bowls. Local restaurants are beginning to support the broader base of local artisans as well as farmers: Restaurant Nora serves soup out of handmade pottery, and Andy Shallal of Busboys and Poets even attempted to put a potter at the wheel on display in his new restaurant Eatonville before that idea was squashed for food safety reasons. There are a whole bunch of innovative ideas swirling around in this space – how can we nurture this kind of cooperation?

We all know that our city’s best restaurants want to source local ingredients, display local art and support efforts to employ the underserved populations of our city. If we work together, this group of restaurants, farms, nonprofits and artisans can be the heart and soul of this city’s economy. As more and more farms, restaurants and nonprofits struggle to survive, and unemployment in our city surpasses 10%, I think our goal is more than clear.
I can imagine a city where it’s natural for restaurants to get not only their food from local farmers, but their plates from local artisans. Where culinary training involves a hands-on field trip to a local farm to learn about bio-intensive agriculture. Where farms not only market to restaurants, but get their volunteer power from local chefs wanting to learn more about the farm to table principle.

What else do you envision? And where should we start?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Pizza adventures

My friends have pointed out recently that I haven't written much on the Garden Variety Philosopher about my pottery adventures. I think that's because I hadn't really achieved a balance yet between creating something in pottery that has a real purpose, beyond just being a well-designed vessel for something. People ask me whether I'm a ceramicist or a potter. I'm not sure of the difference technically, but I think I'm a potter. I don't create things to be works of art, I create things to serve a function. (Of course, if they do that elegantly, they're the best kind of art.) But last night, I was finally able to let one of my best original pottery designs fulfill its purpose in my kitchen and my cooking. Here's the story:

About four months ago, I decided to throw a pizza stone in pottery class. I chose a really dark grog-heavy clay (lots of grit) called Laguna, and threw it as if it were a giant plate with no rim. It was perfectly flat save for some throw lines, and about 3/8 inch thick. After I finished, I decided to let it spin on the wheel while I drizzled some white slip over it for decoration. My amazing pottery teacher Mike had the foresight to yell, STOP! when I'd added enough white slip to create a good design, before I overdid it. As it dried on my teacher's shelf for about a month (thanks for your patience Mike!!) we watched anxiously to see if it would warp or crack. It was ready for the bisque kiln with a slight warp and no cracks. When it came out of the bisque kiln, though, the warp had gotten bad enough that I wasn't sure I wanted to put it through the second firing (no glaze on a pizza stone, of course). But, a leap of faith and $15 in firing tickets later, it came out less warped than it had been before! I thought, this is actually kind of good!

And then - Now that it's done, I might have to actually make pizza...

So of course, nearly every week after Mike would ask me if I'd made pizza yet. Last night I finally did! I'd been worried about how to transfer dough to the oven with the stone already in the oven for the pre-heating stage, which is necessary for pottery. Then at the farm on Sunday, the amazing baker Silke suggested I use parchment paper to transfer the pizza from wooden cutting board to the hot pizza stone in the oven. It worked perfectly.

I've always been a big fan of making dough, but since I wasn't sure how this experiment would go I decided to control one more variable and just get store-made dough. I put the pizza stone in the oven and got to preparing some toppings. I caramelized some onions with bacon, added some sage, salt and pepper, and sliced up some apples and sharp cheddar. When the oven was at 425 (I know, I'm a wimp. Higher temp next time) I put the dough in to pre-cook. That step turned out to not even be necessary with the even heat from the pizza stone. Then I took out the dough, knocked some air out of it since it had puffed up a little, and put the toppings on for its second round in the oven. Less than five minutes later, I had amazing homemade pizza! Crunchy crust, perfectly cooked.

I think a lot of restaurants are beginning to understand how much joy it can bring people when you join good cooking with locally farmed ingredients. Pottery is the missing piece in this emerging convergence. At Mike's farm each Sunday, eating just-picked salads and drinking wine out of pottery that was also made by hand results in this same happy energy.

For me, the pizza stone experiment taught me that not only can I take mud and make a plate, or a bowl, to serve food I have made to friends and family; but I can also create something that then has a role to play all its own in my kitchen, and helps me make something I could never have dreamed of making without it. It's a handmade world, so come join the adventures!

Send me your favorite pizza topping combinations, because I think I'm going to be living on pizza for awhile... and come out to the farm on Sundays to join experiments with grilled pizza (not to mention, to learn bio-intensive farming techniques!). And let me know if you're so inspired that you need a pizza stone. Loving homes only!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Berry-picking Adventures

It's raspberry season! On Saturday morning, I went walking along the C&O Canal Towpath starting in Georgetown and heading upriver. The first thing I noticed were a TON of still-green blackberries, and I wondered if I'd come too early for berry season. But further up the river I started to see raspberry bushes everywhere I looked along the sides of the path. Jackpot! Growing up in New England, berry picking was part of childhood. Playing outside in the woods, we know how to spot blueberries, blackberries, currants, raspberries... besides a bunch of other wild edibles! Do kids have this knowledge anymore I wonder?

Just about an hour later, we escaped with a full pint of berries and only a few scratches. (Yes, berry plants have thorns.) Later on at home, we rinsed them and put them in a small baking dish with a teaspoon each of sugar and flour, then covered the top with a crumb topping. I don't have a recipe for crumb topping, because I always just use whatever I have around. Last time it was Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cereal (seriously!) and this time it was Archway Windmill Cookies. Just grind up the item with butter in a food processor and crumble all over the top of the berries, pop in the oven at 300 degrees, and serve with vanilla ice cream. Now it's really summer!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Sunday at the Farm

Ever since I was four, I wanted to be a farmer. Thankfully, my pottery instructor Mike Pappas is a farmer and he takes volunteers! Yesterday marked the beginning of the season, when I and two other volunteers braved the rain to drive out to Lanham, MD to visit Eco Farms and get our hands dirty. Want to come along next weekend?

We get there around 1 pm and start transplanting the Hoja Santa from the greenhouse back outside into its bed. This consists of taking the u-bar through the bed to break up the soil, digging holes and putting these beautiful big plants in the ground. Using the u-bar to till the soil is more fun than I can explain - it must be experienced firsthand. It's a big U-shaped metal tool that you stand on (on the bottom of the U) and out of the bottom of the U, below where you're standing, are prongs that dig into the soil when your weight is on it. Then you lean back, holding onto the top of the U with each hand, and the prongs come up through the soil, tilling it but not redistributing too much of the little critters & nutrients that live in the soil and keep it healthy for the plants.

Then we proceeded to weed out two beds of sage and three of oregano - beautiful big herb plants that managed to weather the winter outside! There isn't a more beautifully fragrant kind of work to be found.

Farm day always ends in Mike's farmhouse, where we eat salad, bread and cheese and olives, and sometimes drink wine. What a day.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The radishes are looking strong! I'm going to have to thin them out a bit. I'm looking forward to harvesting vegetables this summer. This past week, I went into the grocery store and bought every vegetable I don't regularly cook with: beets, parsnips, cauliflower. Cauliflower turned into an aloo gobhi masala with some potatoes I had, and I roasted all the root vegetables together. Highly successful experiment. Happy spring!

Monday, April 20, 2009

On the Container Gardening Front...

The little san marzano tomato seeds that I brought to the office for a little bit more sun have finally started sprouting!
Just one little sprout so far, but they're definitely benefitting from the big office window.
At home I'm starting to see lots of sprouts of radish and rapini. Pictures to follow!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Great Food in Adams Morgan...

Split plates are definitely the key to eating well in this city on a budget. Perennial favorites:

Bistrot du Coin (Dupont): mussel pot, $8.
El Pollo Rico (Clarendon): half chicken, $8.
Kramer Books (Dupont): Mixed Grill, under $20
L'Oreal Plaza (Adams Morgan): Surf n Turf Grill, under $20

But the great new discovery is half price burger night at the Black Squirrel, a great Adams Morgan bar with 85+ beers. The burgers at this place are beyond compare. The chef sources his own meat and grinds his own unique mixture, which includes, of all things, duck fat. Then the burgers are cooked in a cast iron skillet. We ordered one with brie and caramelized onions, and it was definitely enough food to split. (And, at half price.) Did I mention they have more than 85 beers...?

We will definitely be back, quite possibly every single Thursday night this summer!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Container Gardening Adventures

This past Sunday I planted the seeds of this year's container garden. I have a teeny balcony outside my living room window (faces north) that's about 1' x 3'. Here's what's out there:

Herbs Container: basil, rosemary, thyme, sage (starter plants) plus harvested seeds of citrusy basil from Eco Farms.

Greens Container: Rapini, Beets, Chard (seed).

Roots Container: Fennel, Radish, Baby Carrot (seed).

Other: Peas (seed)... and 4 little San Marzano Tomatoes (seed) that come with me to the office for better sun. When work is building playgrounds, a little community gardening in the office is welcome. :)

Follow progress over the next 60 days... also, stay tuned for my clothesline gardening adventure - in search of some south-facing sunlight for my baby san marzanos!

Monday, April 6, 2009


Welcome wanderers and wonderers! Time to get this adventure off the ground.