The Summer's Last (Edible) Flowers

Sadly, we may only have one more week of squash blossoms. These palm-length orange flowers have a subtly perfumed taste that adds a unique dimension to any dish. If you find some, buy as many as you think you can eat in a week!

They are good simply sautéed quickly in butter (remove the stamen inside the flower first) and make a lovely side dish or garnish for a grass-fed steak. That said, after I was inspired by Greenmarket recipe writer Maria Alvarez, I spent much the summer thinking about different ways to stuff them (winner: stuffed with feta, egg battered, fried.)

For a delightfully delicate change-of-seasons dish, also gather some of summer's last tomatoes and peppers and try the below main dish.

Blossomed Catfish

20 large fresh squash blossoms
2 Tbs olive oil
½ medium or 1 small onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1-2 fresh green chile such as serranos or jalepenos
1 small green bell pepper, seeded and de-ribbed, cut into half inch cubes
1 medium tomato, boiled, peeled, cored and chopped
¾ cup fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
½ cup white wine
1 pound catfish filets, sliced into 2” by 3” squares.

Cut the tough bottom off the flower; pull out and discard the stamen. Rinse the flowers thoroughly and slice crosswise into ½ inch tubes.

Sauté onions in olive oil. After 3 minutes, add garlic and both types of peppers. Sauté until peppers soften, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add white wine, stir. Adjust heat to medium low heat. Place fish pieces around pan. After 2-3 minutes, flip fish. Add blossoms, tomatoes and cilantro. Cover and allow to cook 8-10 minutes, until blossoms are well wilted and fish is cooked through. Season with salt and serve with extra broth from pan dressing the plate.

Rice and fresh corn make good compliments.

picture by Harris Shiffman
via Dreamstime


Cabbage Buds from a Tree

Rumored to come from Brussels, but bearing no resemblance to sprouts, Brussels sprouts are making their first appearances in the market -- although I had trouble locating them at first.

I was scanning the stands for heaps of perfect dollhouse-sized cabbages when my eye caught on a thick stalk almost 2 feet long. It was wrapped with Brussels sprouts like a sting of bulbous lights on a Christmas tree.

Despite eating hundreds of these creatures over the last few decades, I had rudely never considered the upbringing of this button-cute member of the cabbage family. Apparently, they bud in bunches of 20 to 40 on the thick stem of a plant that grows several feet tall. Here’s a picture of a harvested field, where mostly stalks remain.

While most everything in the cabbage family (including kale, broccoli and cauliflower) is going to get even tastier as the temperature dips, I see no reason to wait. Besides, is it possible to resist snatching up a stick ornamented with Brussels sprouts?

Below is my favorite way of preparing them, not only because it is so simple. Roasting them caramelizes and chars the outer leaves, giving their texture an added dimension.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts
(with fig option, see below)
- serves 4 as a side dish

1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed
2-3 Tbs olive oil
kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Combine oil with salt and pepper. Add Brussels sprouts and toss. Spread on a large baking sheet and roast for 30-45 minutes until just tender enough to pierce with a knife. Serve while still hot.

For a festive rendition, 15 minutes before the sprouts are done, add 8-10 fresh dark-skinned figs that have been de-stemmed, quartered and lightly coated in oil. Garnish the duo with pomegranate seeds.

picture via Dreamstime


Are Farmers' Markets the New Starbucks?

In a new book due out next month, Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks (University of California Press, October 2009), historian Bryant Simon explores the unmet needs Starbucks came to fill in American culture.

“At its peak,”
the press release reads, “Starbucks thrived by giving Americans what they thought they wanted, which wasn’t coffee. It was predictability, class standing, a sense of community, more natural and authentic products, and a sense of themselves as caring and more benevolent individuals.”

That last sentence, minus predictability (I always find myself surprised at our greenmarket), might as well be describing a farmer
s’ market. Fittingly, farmers’ markets are on the rise. According to the most recent data from the USDA, the number of farmers' markets in the United has grown from 1,755 in 1994 to 4,685 in 2008 — over 2.6 fold. And preliminary reports suggest the pace of growth is only increasing.

According to Simon, with its comfortable and aesthetic seating areas and eco- and employee-friendly policies, “the success of Starbucks is, in essence, a plea for an older form of state action and everyday neighborhood involvement.”

(Simon explains that the recent dip in Starbucks sales is primarily due to copy-cat places also supplying these other “beyond-coffee” needs. “Now that
Cosi and Panera look like Starbucks, it just doesn’t seem special,” he said.)

What is the growing popularity of farmers’ markets, I would argue, if not also “in essence, a plea for an older form of state action and everyday neighborhood involvement.” It provides
Everything and the Food. Hell, Starbucks is even involved in a youth food project at a farm 20 miles from Boston that contributes to local farmers' markets.

Are farmers’ markets the new Starbucks?

I sure hope so!

picture by Jim Boardman via Dreamstime


When Peaches aren't Peachy

I’ll admit I have been underwhelmed by this year’s peaches. (The nectarines and plums, on the other hand, are incredible right now.) Maybe I’ve just had bad luck, but letting summer close without having had my fill of furry chin-dripping fruit did not seem like an option. So, I bought a four-pound bag, all of which were too hard and ornery to bother eating raw, and cajoled and tickled them until they succumbed -- finally offering smiles, good humor and yes, juicy goodness. In other words, I made a pie.

Spicy Peach Pie

8 cups peeled, sliced firm peaches (about 10 peaches or 4 lbs)

2 cups brown sugar (not packed)

1 tsp salt

½ tsp ground cayenne

1 tsp ground nutmeg

1 ½ tsp ground clove

2 tsp ground cinnamon

½ cup flour

2 tsp vanilla extract

Your favorite pie crust recipe, such as the one below based on one in Joy of Cooking. (Don’t believe recipes that say they make 4 crusts; unless you are an overly-ambitious roller, they usually make 2, with the obligatory generous lattice.)

Cream or milk for brushing atop crust

Preheat over to 375ºF. Mix dry goods in small bowl. Add to peaches and stir thoroughly. Add vanilla, stir again. Roll out half of the pie crust and place on the bottom of deep pie pan (ungreased). Fill with peach mixture. Roll out top pie crust, place over peaches and seal edges with lattice folding, using fingers or spoon to bevel edges. Slit holes in crust to let out steam. Brush with cream or milk. Bake 90 minutes until golden brown and juices are bubbling through the crust. Allow to cool for at least 45 minutes before slicing. Top with ice cream and you may just find yourself tickled peach.

Double Pie Crust (adapted from Joy of Cooking)

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

13 Tbs chilled butter, sliced

4-5 Tbs water

Combine the flour and salt. Using a pastry blender or fingers, work in half of butter until mixture resembles corn meal. Work the second half of butter into the dough until it is pea-sized. Sprinkle dough with water and form a ball. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes before rolling. I like to save myself a mess and roll between layers of wax paper.

picture by David Kay via Dreamstime


Kohlrabi Krunch

It looks like an alien from outer space. All the more reason to invite it into the kitchen! Kohlrabi, a favorite in Indian cuisine (especially in the North), is yet another member of the cabbage family (like kale and broccoli) but has a delicate sweetness all its own. Its flesh is firm and yields a soft crunch when raw (my preferred way of eating it) which cooks up tender like a turnip. The leaves are also edible; cook ‘em the way you would any hardy green (sautéed in olive oil and garlic is never a bad idea).

Below, I gave a Middle Eastern twist to a popular Thai salad, som tom. But instead of green papaya, I used kohlrabi and cabbage (optional). If you leave out the cabbage, sub in two more of its space alien cousins.

Tahini Thai Salad

2 large shallots, minced
½ (or less) of a long red chili pepper, minced
~1/3 cup rice vinegar
lemon juice from half a lemon
4 Tbs tahini paste
2 Tbs peanut oil

1 kohlrabi, purple or green, peeled and sliced into ¼ wide sticks about 2 inches long
1 baseball size cabbage, halved and slice thin
6 radishes, halved and sliced thin
½ cup roasted cashews, chopped fine

Put shallots and pepper in deep bowl. Pour vinegar and lemon juice over (enough to cover) and set aside for at least 30 minutes. (This will mellow out the sharpness of these ingredients and infuse their flavor more evenly throughout the dish.) Mix in tahini and peanut oil. Stir thoroughly. Add kohlrabi, cabbage if using and radishes. Toss. Serve garnished with cashews.

picture by Petr Kratochvil via Dreamstime


Big Food = Big Tobacco

Michael Pollan's has an excellent Op-Ed in today's NYT about the health care system, explaining that the "Western diet" is the elephant in the room when it comes to this debate. "According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three-quarters of health care spending now goes to treat 'preventable chronic diseases,'" he writes, many of which are caused by poor diet.

Requiring the health care system to cover everyone, regardless of pre-existing conditions, etc., he argues would give Big Insurance the incentive to fight Big Food. Here's an excerpt:

"[If the proposed heath care reforms actually go through], what happens when the health insurance industry realizes that our system of farm subsidies makes junk food cheap, and fresh produce dear, and thus contributes to obesity and Type 2 diabetes? It will promptly get involved in the fight over the farm bill — which is to say, the industry will begin buying seats on those agriculture committees and demanding that the next bill be written with the interests of the public health more firmly in mind.

In the same way much of the health insurance industry threw its weight behind the campaign against smoking, we can expect it to support, and perhaps even help pay for, public education efforts like New York City’s bold new ad campaign [worth checking out] against drinking soda... School lunch reform would become its cause, too, and in time the industry would come to see that the development of regional food systems, which make fresh produce more available and reduce dependence on heavily processed food from far away, could help prevent chronic disease and reduce their costs.

Recently a team of designers from M.I.T. and Columbia was asked by the foundation of the insurer UnitedHealthcare to develop an innovative systems approach to tackling childhood obesity in America. Their conclusion surprised the designers as much as their sponsor: they determined that promoting the concept of a “foodshed” — a diversified, regional food economy — could be the key to improving the American diet."

A diversified, regional food economy? Sounds like a network of farmers' markets to me.

After researching the addictive nature of much processed food, David Kessler, former commissioner of the FDA, also came to the conclusion that Big Food should be treated in the same way as Big Tobacco. In his recent book The End of Overeating, his arguments for taxing soda, banning ads aimed at children, etc. parallel those against cigarettes. While easily obtained, both cigarettes and junk food are emotionally and physically addicting, slowly but surely damage the brain and body and are crippling our health care system. Neither should be socially acceptable.

Smoking has gone out of style. Are cola and Cheetos next?

picture by Lunamarina, via Dreamstime


Overactive Bladders to the Rescue?

Last weekend, I found myself defending some of my favorite farmers for their use of chemical fertilizers. My argument was some paraphrasing of what they had told me: Without chemical fertilizers, it is nearly impossible to get enough nitrogen in the soil to keep stuff growing, unless you slow things way down and strategically plant legumes. Realizing these farms are barely making ends meet (especially this year after it rained all June), my argument continued, it is the big farms that can take more risks and find ways around petroleum-soaked fertilizers — hopefully to the eventual benefit of all farmers.

I wish I had seen this new study before I got on my soapbox. Apparently tons of available nitrogen can be found in, er, human pee. Mix it with wood ash and it becomes a powerful fertilizer. (Together they provide high amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, calcium and magnesium.) Talk about interdependence!

The urine/ash fertilizer significantly increased crop yield “without posing any microbial or chemical risks,” reports the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Furthermore, levels of the vitamin beta carotene were higher when the urine/ash fertilizer was used in comparison to other fertilizers.

In all fairness, plants treated with the mineral fertilizer did have, on average, two more fruits per plant than plants given the natural fertilizer. But urine still tripled the yield obtained with no fertilizer.

This particular study focused on tomatoes, but urine has also been successfully used to fertilize cucumber, corn, cabbage and wheat and is likely to be more widely applicable.

Now, dancing in my head, I have a relentless sci-fi fantasy of trading eco-toilet gatherings for produce at the greenmarket. What an image to start the day.

photo by Nikhil Gangavane via Dreamstime