Saturday, January 31, 2009


So you might remember I developed a little bit of a fermentation fetish this summer, with my first forays into making sauerkraut and kimchi. The taste of my homemade kimchi reminded me of the spicier, more traditional kimchis I ate in South Korea and the milder ones from Japan; I also couldn't avoid thinking about all of the health benefits.

As it turns out, my mom is addicted to fermenting too. She's not so big on spicy stuff, but instead opts for a slightly more bizarre (and, in my opinion, more fascinating) method of consuming those healthy microbacteria: kombucha tea.

You may have heard of kombucha tea, but if not, it is a fermented sweet tea created using a 'kombucha culture.' It is said to afford many beneficial health properties, especially digestive health, but also such diverse effects as relieving arthritis, helping with stress and insomnia, improving eyesight, clearing up the skin, and even enhancing the sense of smell! Clearly there is a small psychological component to the consumption of a drink indentified as a promoter of general well-being. While I'm not sure that I believe kombucha 'sends lupus into remission' (a claim on one website), I do believe in its digestive benefits, and am inclined to trust a drink that has been consumed for thousands of years by many different cultures. It is believed to have originated in China around 212 BC.

A couple of nights ago my mom demonstrated the process of making kombucha.

The first step is to get the kombucha culture. It is often called the 'mother,' and frequently referred to as a mushroom (in Japan kombucha is referred to as kocha kinoko, 'mushroom tea') , though this is not officially a mushroom, but instead a culture composed of bacteria and yeast. You can order these cultures online, or ask around your community, since every batch of kombucha generates extra, usually discarded. It's pretty nasty looking -- a slimy, white circle, often even thicker than the one my mom had (she told me this was an unusually flimsy).

Putting the 'mother' aside, she takes a big wide-mouthed glass jar and pours in a large amount of green tea, already brewed. Most kombucha recipes recommend adding sugar to the tea, as food for the bacteria. The bacterial process that creates kombucha is in part dependent on the reaction between the culture and the chemical composition of green and black teas, so other types of tea are less effective in creating the drink.

She adds a small amount of tea from the previous batch to get the process going. This reminds me of how yogurt is made: milk is heated then mixed with a tablespoon of yogurt, essentially seeding the milk with bacteria that turn it into yogurt.

After stirring, she adds the kombucha mother!

The mother floats inside while the bacterial conversion takes place. It takes 5-7 days. Then, you can remove the 'mother' and peel it apart into two disks, discarding one and keeping the other for a future batch. Kombucha seems to encourage people to keep making it: if you don't immediately make more, the 'mother' will be wasted and you'll have to go to a lot of trouble to get another one from someone else.

I guess I forgot to mention what kombucha actually tastes like: it's kind of like a combination of vinegar and green tea. I admit I was a little grossed out by it at first, but the health properties are intriguing and the vinegary taste is cool and refreshing once you're used to it. You can buy flavored kombucha teas at Ellwood Thompson's or other healthfood stores to see if you like it, but of course making your own is way cheaper. Check out a recipe online if you'd like to make your own. Wild Fermentation, my favorite fermentation book by Sandor Ellix Katz, also has a recipe. Good luck, and happy fermenting!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mark Bittman -- Food Matters!

Mark Bittman is a new (to me) name on the 'eat whole, local, organic and sustainable' scene. He has just come out with a book called Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. Bittman was on NPR in a short interview about his eating philosophy and the book itself. One of his statements, that 'we can change the world in 2009 by changing the way we eat,' is eerily similar to our own assertion on this blog that 'we believe food can change the world.' It's good to know lots of people are beginning to adopt this way of life. Bittman points out that America's high meat consumption is unsustainable, in terms of the energy required to raise livestock and ship meat across the country. He also mentions losing 35 pounds and clearing up joint problems and sleep apnea by reducing his meat intake by 70%. His attitude towards meat is EXACTLY the one I'm convinced the majority of Americans need to take up if we are to transition into healthier, more sustanable eating practices: cut meat consumption in half (at least) and when you do eat meat, spend the money for high quality products and really enjoy them.

A great quote from the NPR site, where a small excerpt from Food Matters is posted:

"At first, I simply eliminated as much junk food and overrefined carbs as I could, along with a sizable percentage of animal products. All this turned out to be easy enough, for a couple of reasons. One, when I did allow myself to eat meat, or dairy, eggs, sugar, or bread made from white flour (usually at dinner), I ate whatever I wanted, and as much of it as I wanted. And two, I started to lose weight, quite quickly—a big boost of positive reinforcement." View the entire article here.

He is exactly right. Eating should be a pleasure, and it certainly is when we enjoy at intervals the things we are most fond of, instead of beating ourselves up over eating them at every meal. And my own journey down a similar path of diet and food philosophy, I have come to enjoy the whole, simple foods sometimes more than the sugary, fatty, starchy ones (though I do love me some cheese and pasta). For me, an important part of so-called 'conscious eating' is in establishing a deep understanding of how foods affect you -- mentally, physically and spiritually. I am reminded here of a book called If the Buddha Came to Dinner: How to Nourish Your Body to Awaken Your Spirit. Some of this book is based on Ayurvedic diet practices, but it is very enlightening in its contemplation of the spiritual aspects of cooking and eating. Consciousness is always a big part of it.

Anyway, the best part of Bittman's book is he includes recipes of his own. Here is another NPR article where Bittman and NPR's Melissa Block make some delicious beet pancakes and a frittata. Yum. This guy sounds like a great cook. He even makes oatmeal sound tantalizing..

Local Honey

Bees are an important resource -- without them we'd be hard pressed to grow vegetables! Support Richmond beekeepers and buy local honey.

Richmond Beekeepers Association

Bees and Blossoms

Local Meat, Egg, and Dairy Farms

Looking for places to get your humane meat and dairy products? What about eggs? These farms have everything you're looking for, and many sell at farmer's markets around the area. Others encourage you to buy a 'cow share!'

If your farm is not on this list, let us know!

Local CSAs

CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, is a great way to support local farms! To join, you pay a lump sum at the beginning of the season so your farm of choice has the funds for seeds, soil amendments and labor to grow; reap the benefits as that farm brings you fresh seasonal produce on a weekly basis! Some farms use a 'debit' system so that you can shop at the market money-free...others deliver right to your doorstep. Check out the Wikipedia article on CSAs for more information!

Ready to join, or just doing research for next year? Here are all the CSA in the Richmond area we know of...

Faith Farm: Meat, Eggs, Honey, butter, homemade pasta

Quail Spring Farm

Frog Bottom Farm

Victory Farms

Rural Market CSA: A CSA combining products from a handful of our areas best producers. Meat, honey, produce, eggs...

Dominion Harvest : Home delivery with a wide range of products.

AgriBerry (Fresh Fruit & More)

Amy's Garden

Horse and Buggy Produce

If your CSA is not listed here, please let us know!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Let's talk beets.

Last winter I made my first real acquaintance with beets. I had never considered eating them until I tried one sliced and roasted. Delicious! My RFC co-blogger Erin taught me how to cook beets just right: cut them up into bite-sized pieces, drizzle and coat them in olive oil, then roast in the oven at 400 until al dente. Now that the yearly love affair with tomatoes, sweet pepper and squash has come to a temporary close, it's time again to start enjoying beets.

It seems like most people, like me, tend to overlook beets as a culinary option. Perhaps they were forced to consume stewed beets from a can as children, or in general are repulsed by anything that is squishy and red. Or maybe some people have just forgotten about beets. In any case, they're worth a second look. In addition to being one of the most vibrantly colored winter vegetables (sometimes I just get sick of orange, though butternut squash, pumpkin and sweet potatoes are all delicious), they are incredibly good for you, with the usual quantities of cancer-fighting nutrients and anti-heart disease agents folate, manganese, potassium, dietary fiber and Vitamin C.

The best way to eat beets is as part of a salad. They provide a delicious textural counterpoint to greens, fresh fruit and nuts. I love the flavor so much, though, that I will sometimes just serve them as a stand-alone side dish. Other ways of cooking beets include baking, stewing, or pickling them, or adding them to vegetable juice mixes.

Chioggia Beets -- how can you resist a vegetable with stripes? I'm growing a solid red variety, but Chioggias are available through Southern Exposure!

On the grower's end, a compelling aspect of beets is their hardiness and versatility as a garden vegetable. They are a perfect illustration of the concept of what I'm calling 'garden root cellaring.' This is how most people extend their garden harvests on into the winter: plant vegetables towards the end of the season, so that they are generally large enough to eat by the time the temperature turns cold. As the winter days go on, most cold-tolerant plants will fall into a kind of winter-induced stasis, refusing to grow but also refusing to die. As you are ready to eat them, you can gradually harvest these vegetables one at a time, leaving the rest inside the ground, waiting inside a cool, natural 'root cellar.' My beets are a bit small because we planted them in early October, which means they had less time to strengthen and get big before the frost. Still, they are surviving, and, of course, delicious! The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog, in its handy guide to planting dates, recommends that us Richmonders plant beet seeds between August and September 7th for a winter harvest, and March to April 15th for a summer one (you can keep planting them all the way through mid-May, though hot and dry weather may result in a tough and stringy root). This said, you can get beets at the farmer's market during the first half of the season or so, but they always seem to come into the spotlight in the winter, when the range of vegetables narrows to only the ones that happen to also be cold hardy.

If you're growing beets for the first time, or plan to, here's a tip for checking the size without pulling up the whole root: just scrape the dirt at the base of the plant and feel the top of the root with your fingers. You can estimate the size this way, and won't waste beets by pulling them up too small.

My beets are thriving, in spite of those pesky weeds...I guess I forgot to mulch -- oops! I'm positive my beets would be bigger if I'd been more vigilant.

Let's not forget beets are in the same vegetable family as swiss chard, meaning that their leaves are also delicious and full of nutrients. Beet greens can be treated the exact same way as collards, chard, tatsoi, pak choi or spinach -- sauted with garlic and olive oil, added to salads or incorporated into soups. So, if you get the chance, give beets a try: they're easy to grow (remember: this is my first year of gardening!) and absolutely delicious to eat.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Free Southern Exposure 2009 Seed Catalog

Thanks to "Mama Hirsch" for reminding me that you can order a free Southern Exposure seed (and starts) catalog on line by clicking Here! Like Seed Savors, Southern Exposure specializes in preserving and selling seeds from 1000s of varieties of tomatoes, potatoes, squash, greens and everything in between. This Company, based in Mineral Virginia also helps promote events in our area such as the annual Heritage Harvest Festival in Charlottesville each fall.
While your on their site, sign up for their mailing list and get their garden e-news letter.

Monday, January 12, 2009

We petition you

From the Ethicurean:

Obama still hasn't named a Secretary of Agriculture, which is one of the most important appointments in the Cabinet, overseeing a $94 billion budget that directly affects not just farmers, but public health, the environment, animal welfare, and so much more. For years this post has been held by shills for "Big Farma" and pandered to those corporations like Cargill, Smithfield, Monsanto, and Archer Daniels Midland with massive lobbying clout. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in his NY Times column yesterday, "Obama's Secretary of Food?", appointing a reformer to head the USDA would send a "powerful signal" that U.S. food policy was finally about to become more palatable.

Kristof linked to a petition at that asks Obama's transition team to consider six candidates — all experienced, viable names of people who are ready and willing to serve — for Secretary of Agriculture who could potentially mend our broken food system. Already, after only six days, 36,000 people have signed the petition, including Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Bill Niman, and the Obama transition team appears to be paying attention. But for some reason, the current names still being floated in the media are not those of reformers at all.

Dave Murphy, a sixth-generation Iowan and the petition's organizer, tells me that he thinks if we can get the number of signers to 100,000 over the next few days, the pressure to choose someone from the sustainable agriculture and food community — not Big Farma – would be too immense to ignore.

Please consider signing the petition, blogging it, and/or forwarding this message to your personal networks and any list-servs you are on.

Visit now to sign.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Something to think about during the quiet season

I know. It is so very wintery right now. I am relying on my stock of canned, frozen and dried produce to get me through. My refrigerator is nearly empty all the time. What a difference from the overflowing produce drawers and the meals that I cranked out all summer. So, in this time of quiet, I am starting to think about my commitment to eating well, and the choices I make on behalf of that commitment. Wendell Berry, an amazing thinker/ doer, wrote this essay called 'The Pleasures of Eating' (from What Are People For?). He wrote this gorgeous piece in response to the question, 'What can city people do' to support the agricultural landscape? Check it out.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Let's talk breakfast.

Frustrated by the sheer volume of packaging versus the actual product, not to mention the amount of processing involved, I have taken cereal into my own hands. I have been making my own granola- yes, seriously. Turns out, I like it even better than any store bought brand. Of course I do- I can put anything I want to in it.

My basic recipe follows. I change the spices and fruit and nuts, but the rest is as easy as, well, you know... It is really good with yogurt.

Homemade Cereal
Heat together over low heat, stirring until viscous and blended.
3 Tbs coconut oil
1/3 C brown sugar
1/2 C honey
Pour over:
1 cup quick cooking, toasted oats
1 cup 5 grain cereal, (I use Old Wessex Ltd, available at Trader Joe's, but you can use more oats if you can't find it)
1/2 cup nuts and spices to taste (see below)
Mix well. Spread mixture in a thin layer on a cookie sheet. Bake at 325 degrees for 20 minutes, then stir. Bake 15- 20 minutes longer, until brown. Stir again. Let the cereal settle in warm oven. Break it into bits, add 1/2 cup of dried fruit and store in an airtight container.
Here are the combinations I have tried so far:
Dried cherry, pecan, anise and cinnamon
Dried apple, walnut, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice
Dried mango and ginger with almond

Rice Cereal
I have also taken to adding milk. spices and dried fruit to leftover rice and eating it for breakfast. It is strangely familiar and satisfying.

2 cups cooked rice
enough milk to cover rice
1TBS fresh ginger
1TBS sugar or honey
pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg
1/4 cup dried currants

Stir it up, let soak overnight, and eat in the morning.

The Region's Local Food Network

Join the RFC at the Sierra Club's local chapter meeting on local food systems. Details from their site follow:

January 14, 2009
Time: 7:00 pm

Program: General Meeting
Host: Falls of the James Group

Location: Science Musuem of Virginia - Discovery Room, 2500 West Broad Street Richmond Virginia.

Contact: See our Executive Committee link under the contact us section in the nav bar above.

Program: "The Region's Local Food Network"
Speaker Anne Darby and Jonah Fogel With the Richmond Area Food System Network Come hear how pioneers are reviving the regional food network, restoring value to fresh foods and revitalizing small farms and farmers.

This meeting is free and open to the public.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New Community Garden

From Lisa Taranto of Tricycle Gardens:

Join the Humphry Calder Community Garden! Our next meeting is this Thursday (8th) at 7:30 pm at the Humphry Calder Community Center (414 N. Thompson Street). We are also taking a limited number of reservations at $50--to guarantee that you will get a plot the first year.

How to De-seed a Pomegranate

Check out this video my mom sent from Gourmet about how to de-seed a pomegranate without too much muss or fuss. This was a revelation to me, and could make your life a little more lovely. Pomegranate seeds are a beautiful addition to salads or garnish for drinks. Pomegranates do grow in Virginia, ( Both Shannon and I posted about this earlier in the season) though their season is more in the late autumn, and they are full of vitamins. Thanks, Mom!