Lavender fields

I love the color purple.  It’s not a color I would paint my house, but I’d happily add accents in that color.   And wear clothes that color.   I love lavender and Russian sage.  In all their purple splendor, they are pretty to look at and delightful to smell.  But mostly, I love finding things that I can successfully grow in our soil starved yard.  It’s an ongoing challenge.  Our yard is carved out of a hillside of hardpan – a dense layer of soil largely impervious to water.   In it’s essence, it means that there is no soil.  When we had our fence installed, they had to call to ask for permission to go over the quoted price as they hadn’t realized they’d need to bring in jackhammers to dig the fence post holes deep enough.

We’ve brought in soil to have a lawn.  We’ve added automatic sprinklers to keep it watered.  Still, it’s not paradise.  More like Paradise Lost.  We have great weather (except I could do without the 100+ temperature today) but nothing grows without lots of added inputs of water and fertilizer and soil.  

A few years ago, I planted Russian Sage and Lavendar in my garden in the side yard. They are looking pretty good now.

It took several years, but they now are flourishing with little added help.  The vegetables I’ve tried to plant in the same garden area are a failure.  The Dutch baby beets were chopped away by some kind of insect as soon as they got a few leaves.  The bush beans look like lace doileys from all the insects chomping away at the leaves.   The row of deep bunching purple onions is mostly bare soil. The pencil carrots never even germinated.  And I even had a screen net over these plants to protect them from birds!  Yet the heirloom tomatoes, behind the house,  are thriving.  We added a lot of good soil to their bed, and it shows.  Currently, there are a lot of blossoms and even some little tomatoes.  I am sure some will all be maturing just after we leave for our Midwest trip in less than two weeks.  

Since I don’t seem very successful at growing vegetables besides greens and tomatoes (and I am delighted with that), I’ve been thinking that what I really should do is learn how to more fully use lavender – as a food.  I know you can make a tea infusion with it, and add it to baked goods.  I’ve just never explored that.  I started reading up about it and regretted that when I planted my lavender plants, I didn’t pay much attention to just what variety they are (other than that I have several different kinds).  Articles talk about how one variety is much better than others in flavor.  I guess I’ll just have to start brewing some cups of tea and figure out for myself whether my plants have tasty flowers.  While I’m at it, I also should try some of my bee balm in tea.  I’ve read that you can use the young leaves to make an herbal “Earl Gray” tea, as they are also know as bergamot, the distinctive flavor in Earl Gray tea.  I do know the flowers smell nice.

 

But I don’t want to end up accidently poisoning myself.  So I’ll start with little cups of tea, and work my way up.

Buy a Gun

Yes, a very strange title for a post of mine. Buy a gun?  What must I be thinking of?  Why, Tieton, Washington, of course!  That’s what it rhymes with, or so I was reminded when I was reading about the visions for Mighty Tieton.  That’s actually what they say on their webpage.   I keep reading about the incredible visions of one person to turn a not-very-inspiring town into an incredible center for arts. I hope it happens. But remembering the name by rhyming it with “buy a gun” just doesn’t help me on the “you rah rah” part of things.

Yet, this is where I live. The Wild West.  The city of Yakima has recently come under lots of fire (another gun image — sorry) for the banners they commissioned to hang up in the downtown area to promote our wonderful area.   The image on the banners was meant to beautify downtown Yakima with an abstract depiction of rays of sunshine or rivers or something (always left a little vague).  They were supposed to inspire pride in the city’s natural wonders and fuel tourism and economic development. 

Instead, many people, including me, thought the images looked like rifles.  The city has since removed the banners, agreeing that perhaps they were a mistake.   They will replace them with Wine Country banners.  What surprised me is that I didn’t hear any comments about the similarity of the banners to the sign on the Yakima Sports Center Bar and Grill, a longtime downtown fixture.

Well. What does this have to do with food, and a food scientist’s reflections? I am not sure. I always have had problems with getting sidetracked.  Absent minded or scattered brained are other ways to put it. Do you know anyone else who used a sock as a bookmark? (Ask my mother. It’s true.) But, maybe what I’m thinking is that I’ll never fully experience the bounty of Central Washington’s food since I’m not a hunter. Many, many years ago, we lived on and managed a “duck farm”. Really it was a wealthy Seattle businessman’s hunting retreat, one of many. One Thanksgiving, some friends joined us for the day. Dave and Phil went out bird hunting. Dave, with a gun borrowed from Phil, brought down a pheasant on his first shot. They returned, and it was promptly fixed as part of dinner. Dave has never again gone out hunting. His thought process was “Why ruin a perfect record?” But this area is guns, guns, guns. Which really was the name of a gun shop near here that recently was converted to the Selah Police department. How appropriate!

I like eating meat. But just don’t want to be shooting the animals. We do have a little bunny that seems to have taken up living in our yard. I was fine with watching him (or her) eating grass and the invasive elms. But a few nights ago he hopped over to my nasturiums and started nibbling on the leaves. At that point I tried to shoo him away. Perhaps I’ll end up with a locally grown rabbit in my pot after all.

Arts Unbound

Tieton, Washington.  It’s about 15 or so miles west of Yakima, in the heart of apple orchards and the gentle poverty that agricultural communities seem to share.   A few years ago, a Seattle man had a vision of building it into a community of artisan businesses and a nucleus for regional cultural events.  Carrie and Robb took a drive out with us out there last July.  Honestly, it didn’t look like much.  I noticed in the Yakima newspaper that they were having a summer Solstice event, called Arts Unbound.  Art, artists & books.  So we took a drive out there today.  We started with the Lions club barbeque.   Lesson to be learned – don’t pay your money expecting culinary treats, but just view it as a contribution to help a local, small town club.   Then we wandered over to the Book Arts Studio, which had books, art exhibits and demonstrations.  A man from Idaho (Jim Croft) had a demonstration about handmade wood and bone book art tools and Medieval bookbinding.  It was pretty interesting.  He even had really old books from the 1500’s out that you were allowed to look through and handle.  Dave kept asking if it really was all right to touch them.  I

 

Then we wandered over to the “Lofts”.  These are condos fashioned from an old fruit warehouse.  At $250,000 for a 1400 square foot unit (not finished), they’re pretty pricey for the overall depressed Yakima market.  We peered in some windows of condos deliberately left open for gawkers (which were visually very intriguing), and walked through the art exhibit in the open courtyard.  It was a pleasant space, of sorts.  

 

But I still wasn’t left craving it.  I mulled over whether I’d want to live there, and voted “no”.   So what is it that makes a place enter into the category of “wow, I want to quit my job, sell everything I own, and move here ” versus “this has some interesting things about it, but it’s not for me… yet”

We also stopped at an art gallery with an art and book exchange.  We meant to see the main event gallery at the “Mighty Tieton” warehouse, but didn’t feel like paying the entrance fee to what looked like more art galleries.  I guess we have a low threshold for art!   I’m glad we went, but still wonder the same thing I wondered a year ago:  In 20 years, will we come here and say “Wow, this guy really had a vision of things and it happened?”, or will Tieton just continue to slide into increased poverty and decay? 

Another story “to be continued”…

Who would ever guess?

Yesterday, I was home for lunch, as usual. I wondered if we had much around for dinner, or whether I should stop at the store later for food. I discovered a rack of baby back ribs in the freezer, and decided they would be good – (and decadent) for dinner. So much for the low meat dining. But the rack was frozen. Hmm. So I unwrapped it, and put it in a 7″ by 11″ glass baking pan. I thought I could put it in a low temperature oven and over the course of the afternoon, it would thaw and slowly cook. But it seemed like it should have some seasoning, or barbeque type sauce. The cupboards and refrigerator were pretty bare, (although probably not to the extent of Old Mother Hubbard). I decided to squirt some catsup on the frozen ribs. But that didn’t seem quite enough. so…. Confession time: I love good grapefruit juice. I wish I worked for a juice company that made good grapefruit juice, but I really like living in the Pacific Northwest, so that probably wouldn’t be a good fit as they don’t grow grapefruits here. I had a container of Florida’s Natural “not from concentrate” grapefruit juice in the frig, so I added a large drenching of it to the pan. Then sprinkled on top some McCormick’s Grill Mates Montreal Steak seasoning. I covered the pan with aluminum foil, then put it in the oven at 300 degrees. Four hours later when I came back home, the house smelled wonderful. I made some coleslaw, cut up some watermelon, and enjoyed a pretty decent dinner. Now who would have thought that grapefruit juice and catsup could make such a good sauce for ribs?

Heirloom tomatoes

For my birthday last January, Erin, Carrie and Robb gave me lots of interesting seeds. Seeds for growing gourmet lettuce mixes, pencil carrots, purple bunching carrots, Dutch baby beets, oriental poppies and lots of heirloom tomatoes along with a ‘non-heirloom” cherry tomato. They were a treat in the middle of winter, setting me to dreaming about the bountiful crops I would be harvesting as the year progressed. So, how has the battle between the green and black thumbs been going?

The gourmet greens and spicy greens were planted in a half barrel in the backyard in early March. They flourished and produced delicious salad greens until this week when I harvested the last of them. It has been a very cool spring so they thrived from the unseasonably cold weather. And they were great tasting. I’ll miss them, but will use the rest of the seeds late this summer to plant a fall crop. We planted the tomato seeds indoors in March and Dave pampered them like babies in need of intensive care. I love the names of all of them: Brandywine, Caspian Pink, Tigerella, Green Zebra, Big Rainbow, Gold Nugget. The names promise a lot, though, and I’m interested to see how the names can possibly describe the tomatoes I hope we’ll be harvesting later this summer. They are now planted outside, behind the house, and are several feet tall with lots of blossoms and even some small tomatoes on the cherry tomatoes.

I think I have failed the other vegetables. We live in an area without much soil. Instead we have a layer of hardpan near the surface. My Russian sage and lavender seem just fine in it, but the garden area I planted the beets and onions and carrots must be poison for vegetables. There is little to show between the failed germination or insect damage. And I had such high hopes (much like the ant trying to move the rubber tree plant…..).

And the oriental poppies that I so lovingly grew in little containers indoors were eaten up by birds or insects within hours, it seemed, of being put into the garden. Poor things.

So, my dreams of homegrown summer delights now are concentrated on the tomatoes. We bought a single Brandywine heirloom at a Seattle farmer’s market in May for an absurd price, and delighted in the intense tomato flavor as the juice dripped down our faces. So my hopes are high.

To be continued… as the summer progresses and, hopefully, we are harvesting bushels of heirloom tomatoes.

Yumberries?

I had a long post written, and managed to lose it when my computer went crazy on me. Perhaps that was it’s way of telling me that I had been rambling and not focusing.

I was thinking about food safety, and what people can conclude when they read articles like the one in Newsweek that Carrie cited in a recent comment. Has it really gotten this difficult to make food choices? Now, besides wondering about the fat content (trans fat or saturated fat?) or the sodium levels, or the use of food dyes that might make our children hyperactive or dozens (even hundreds) of other things we’re told to worry about, we now get to worry about whether we will we get sick from our food and what we should buy to reduce that worry. And not sick, as in causing heart disease or high blood pressure, but as in “kill you in a few days” type sick.
So, is it locally grown, farmer’s market food? Homegrown? Commercially processed? Free range? Organic? GMO free? Anything but Chinese? More restrictions possible than I ever imagined years ago when you just bought a bunch of carrots not even wondering about anything other than how much they cost and whether they’d taste sweet and delicious. And now we can also add “pathogen free”. Well, that’s really always been a concern, just not addressed as such.

Yumberries, also known as Yang Mei berries, come from China. Arghh. Not China! They are one of the newest “super foods”, high in antioxidants, reputed to do anything you want (lower blood pressure, help you live forever, keep your memory sharp). Well, they give me headaches, but that’s because I can’t seem to figure out at work just how to turn them into juice very easily as they have more wax than anything else I’ve ever worked with and the wax just coats everything and makes a mess. And here I wasn’t even worrying about whether they were safe! My company works with a trade organization for apple products that follows impending government actions and how they might affect out business. Recently we’ve been looking at proposed government actions on “safety of imported food from China”. My first question is why limit it to China? We seem to be pretty good at poisoning our citizens with homegrown tomatoes and spinach. But it also got me to thinking about the strange mis-mash that government regulations make of things. Currently, the US Food and Drug Administration requires of two food groups that they have in place very specific programs to address food safety in their products. The program is called HACCP, for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point. And the juice industry and seafood industry are required to have these programs in place. It’s not mandatory for anyone else. Go figure. Or go fish. I think we have a long way to go.

Hmm, if only Snow White had lived in the US in current times and had drank a glass of apple juice rather than eaten an apple she might have been fine after all.

Food scares, or scary food?

I work for a large apple processing company. We make apple juice, applesauce, dried apples, frozen apples, chilled apples. Am I missing some form of processed apples? We also process every other kind of juice you can imagine (raspberry, strawberry, grape, pear) along with ones you’ve probably never heard of (yumberry anyone?). Sometimes I wish I’d never heard of them either.

It’s interesting to me that the American consumers really do seem to be paying attention to the news. While they might seem to miss the things I think are important, they certainly do pay attention to food safety news articles. We have a consumer “hot line” for customers to call in with comments, complaints, questions and compliments. If the media has publicized any information that is concerned with safety of juice products, we hear about it.

“Does your juice have …. flouride, or gluten, or Chinese ingredients, or ? … in it. I’ve heard that causes cancer, or dementia , or attention deficit disorder, or diabetes, or your milk to dry up……… (fill in the blanks here with anything – I do mean anything!). Good to know that people are listening to the news and are concerned. But discouraging to think that they never quite get it right. (in my “not so humble opinion”). I take phone calls sometimes, or write up stock answers that seem to fit the questions, but end up wondering whether it helps. So, what is the best way to educate the “public”? I don’t think my company really is the enemy, even if we do have failings. Yet I am more than willing to attach that tag (of the enemy) to Kraft or other really large companies.

Perhaps I just need to alter my perception. “We have met the enemy and he is us”. Pogo (Walt Kelly)

Fire and Ice (with apologies to RF)

Food. Can’t live without it, can we? Yet, in the climate we live at, it also doesn’t uniformly present itself to us over the course of all the seasons. Ah – the delight of asparagus and leaf lettuce in the springtime, cherries in the early summer, tomatoes and corn on the cob in late summer, apples in the fall. I love them all! And, seriously, I love them all fresh the best.

But, the reality is that we can’t really have fresh cherries year round, nor tomatoes, nor most anything else if we are to rely on food grown relatively close to where we live. But we can enjoy all these things year round if we use “food preservation”. This involves heat or cold. Cook food to a high enough temperature, kill all the bad bugs, then put it into a sealed container. And eat it when you want to. Or, cool food enough, slow down the growth of any bugs, and cook the food when you need it. Or – one last option. Dry out the food enough (slow heat), which also prevents those nasty bugs from growing. Basically, that’s food preservation. And to my view, it’s processed food. Altered from it’s native state. Is it bad? Maybe to some, but not to me. Here is a way we can take the bounty of a nearby harvest and let us enjoy it year round. To have fresh tomatoes in December means transportation from a far away foreign place. Fresh? Yes. Desirable? Questionable. A can of Muir Glen organic fire roasted diced tomatoes tastes pretty good in February. (and sorry to admit it, is priced very attracively at WalMart).

Heat – to a high enough temperature and held for a long enough time – will kill the dangerous microbes that can hurt us. Cold – as in freezing- doesn’t kill them, but keeps them from growing. As does drying. Commercially processed food has a good safety record. You won’t get sick from it. It’s the food your neighbor puts up in mason jars and serves at the neighborhood potluck that is more likely to harm you.

When you buy food on the grocery store shelf you are buying “processed” foods. In the food industry, we call them “shelf stable”. Take it home – put it on your shelf. Eat them when you want. Items in the refrigerator or freezer are perishable and must be consumed shortly after buying.

So, what’s with “processed food”? It can mean many things. If it means that the food has been heat (or cold) processed, I see it as a way to extend the time you can use an otherwise perishable food. However, I do take exception to foods that have been altered in other ways, and I think that’s where the critic’s outcry against processed food is appropriate. For example: Oatmeal. A food that keeps without any processing – just keep it dry. But add sugars and flavors and preservatives to turn it into a granola bar; now I have problems with it as a “processed food’. I guess to my view, the more ingredients in a manufacturing plant that are added, the further the food is from it’s original state. Especially if the ingredients are things you don’t have in your own kitchen. Adding “thermal units” (heat or cold) doesn’t seem the same to me. Take the basic food – fresh or thermally preserved – and then in your own kitchen add whatever else you want. That’s my preferred route.

But… I don’t want to seem an elitist who only has disdain for the “foods of the masses”. I eat them myself…. sometimes…… Still, my ideal remains minimally processed from a standpoint of added ingredients but processed as is needed from a safety standpoint.

Next… thoughts on “whole” foods, compared with partial foods, perhaps?

Tomatoes, rotten and otherwise

Nothing like a good food poisoning scare to get the publics’ attention about food safety. Recently, tomatoes have been the focus of our attention as public enemy number one.

Salmonella, clostridium, listeria, e.coli. Don’t they all have a rather exotic sound to them, like a foreign visitor, only this time not invited and definitely not welcome?

I was wondering how one of my favorite food writers, Michael Pollan, would cover this topic. Where do you go with “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.”?

I am sure that maximal health means not getting sick from the food you eat. But how do you ensure that? In some ways, it seems contradictory to the idea many people hold that processing is a bad thing, and that it’s always best to eat food in it’s most “natural” form. However, heat, when it comes to food safety, can definitely be our friend. There are things you can do in the course of day to day kitchen activities to not get sick from all that fresh produce you thought you were supposed to be eating. The US Food and Drug Administration offers some good advice.

Included in all the talk about washing produce and cutting off bruised or hard spots is the information that exposure to adequate heat will kill the bad organisms that can make us sick. Canned tomatoes are safe. Maybe not as sexy as that beautiful red orb in the produce case calling your name, but definitely safe. Same thing with juices. Heat kills. Kind of like a rock song, isn’t it, only substitute heat for love.

My basic take on things – take the FDA’s advice to heart. But keep eating plants…..in all forms.

Cold hands, warm heart

As I was making green onion buttermilk baking powder biscuits for dinner tonight (only with chives as a substitute for the green onion), I also was thinking about cold hands for working pastry doughs.  I have some nice pastry forks (thank you, Becky!) that I use frequently.  Yet I still find that I often just will use my hands if I’m working butter into flour.  It lets me “feel” the texture and know when I’ve gotten the particles to the right size.  Long ago I would read about how you could do this if you had cold hands.  And I just dismissed that different people might have different hand temperatures and found this a rather silly idea.  It just didn’t make sense.  But recently at work I had to order a new temperature probe for a digital readout thermometer we use for checking the temperature of big vats of applesauce or whatever we’re working with in the lab or pilot plant.    I’d used it for a project at one of our juice plants and it had inadvertently ended up melted by the high heat and now was unusable.  When the replacement probe arrived, I hooked it up to the thermometer unit and a co-worker asked if I had checked to see if it worked.  There was always the chance that the meltdown that melted the probe had also damaged the readout unit.  So I turned on the machine and held the proble tightly in my hands.  And the temperature never went above the mid 80′.s  The other person said “it doesnt’ seem to be working”.  They took the probe and held it in their hands, and the temperature shot right up into the 90’s.  And I thought “aha – cold hands.  That’s why I can make pie crusts so well”.  Maybe this insight will help me be more understanding when people complain about the difficulties they have with making pie crusts.   And I hope that they will be understanding when I give them directions that are all wrong.  I am a hopeless dyslexic for right and left.  

So, along with the biscuits I tried a few recipes from my most recent copy of Bon Appetit.  Mustard Grilled Pork (which was good) and Grilled Red and Green Cabbage Slaw. That was a real revelation.  The recipe called for grilling cabbage quarters .  Who would have thought that would work?  But it did – and I really liked the side dish it made.  

And that got me to thinking about Robb’s comment on his blog.  I also find that eating out usually doesn’t result in better tasting food.  Certainly more food, usually, but not generally better unless you go to a place with truly extravagant prices.  It does, though, provide a break from home and the distractions and stresses.  And that is worth something also. (just not too often)