This week I started volunteering in a kitchen that prepares an astonishing 1,000 meals a day for low income people with chronic illnesses, about half with HIV and the rest with cancer, diabetes and other diseases. I didn’t sign up for this because I’m a great person, I did it for the selfish reasons of wanting to be busier and to meet new people and to be necessary. When I was helping to assemble these plates, it just hit me that every one of them represented a person in pain. I would have a hard time doing this job, even unpaid, if they were putting out a crappy product, but all of the meals are cooked from scratch using fresh ingredients. They’re even making their own stocks. It isn’t fine dining, but it is real, better than what comes out of most “institutional” kitchens, something I know a little about having spent seven years in the college foodservice world. And long before that, I interviewed for a job cooking for a daycare, an interview that stopped cold for me when my prospective employer assured me that I wouldn’t have to actually cook: ”you just heat up the meat patties and stuff that we buy pre-made.” My new friend Bernardo, one of the three paid cooks at Lifelong, gave me a tour of the facility yesterday and in all of the walk-ins, there was no Sara Lee this and Kraft that, but carrots and onions and chickens and briskets. And it just made me wonder if we’d have fewer people in need of this service if the kitchens in daycares and schools looked like that.
Yesterday, one of the frat guys from my “HUNGRY” days posted a response to one of my tweets about a new volunteer job I’m taking on, cooking meals for chronically ill patients: “Can I read about this in your blog? The one where you don’t post anymore?” I was glad to know that someone other than my mom and husband had ever checked in with this blog; I started it under the guidance of my publicist who also insisted I needed a Facebook page for the book and that I have a presence on Twitter “because readers will want to connect with you.” I doubted it then, and I can’t say that social media has improved my life. In many ways, it’s made me feel lonelier and less authentic. I cancelled my personal Facebook a few days ago when I realized that my feed looks pretty much exactly the same every single day:
Political right-wing rant
Over sharing by niece (“Johnny pee peed on the potty today!!!!!”)
Political left-wing rant
Ad for J. Crew sweater (is there no privacy?)
Over sharing by niece re sex life
My Life Is Better Than Yours, example #9000
After I pulled the plug, I kept getting email from Facebook, gratingly referring to me as “Frere” and warning me that when people check my profile they will only get a blank silhouette. “This is what your friends see,” it admonished, only confirming my opinion that narcissism is the disease of our time. I can’t say that blogging is any less self-absorbed, but at least I know that the three people who read this will have had to actively seek it out and if I get over my ambivalence and write again, I hope I can provide content that’s more enriching than a selfie.
Note: The photo above is taken from Despair.com where you will find other great truths.
Nigel Slater, cookbook author and columnist for London newspaper The Observer, is one of my favorite food writers. As with fellow British writer Nigella Lawson, you read a piece from him and want to cook right now. At the moment, I’m all over his book Ripe, looking for inspiration for the flood of summer fruit at the market and for the never-ending supply of blackberries we have at the Farm. The season for peaches and apricots and berries is so short that every year I feel like I haven’t fully appreciated them, and it’s especially hard at the Farm where I will never be able to pick all the plenty before it dries up or freezes on the vine. I made this Blackberry Focaccia and tweeted the photo, naming the source of the recipe, and received a reply from Nigel himself. Please don’t tell me that he has someone else managing his social media, killing the image of Slater in his North London home looking out at his kitchen garden typing “Darlene, that is beautiful. Thanks for the picture.”
I realize that the universe of people growing Nasturtium is small and I know it’s not something you can pick up at Albertsons, but then, there was a time that kale was that thing caterers put on trays and specialty grocery stores lined there processed food counters with it. I know this because I used to work for a specialty grocery store in Texas and the idea that that would become THE FOOD TREND OF THE DECADE would have been laughable. A few years ago, I volunteered for a nonprofit that was in it’s infancy, a sustainable farm/school/education center in Woodinville, Washington called 21 Acres. It’s now a major force in the local, sustainable food movement, but in around 2008, it was a little hippy startup. I took part in a catering event fundraiser for the center at local bookstore Third Place Books, and my role was to come up with inexpensive hors d’oeuvres that used produce from 21 Acres. And given that Nasturtium and radishes were both in season and a product of the farm, and being familiar with the classic French appetizer of fresh radishes with butter and sea salt, I came up with the idea of Radish Topped Baguette Slices spread with Nasturtium Butter. It was delicious and yet I had never had it again until tonight when I served it with our dinner because until now I didn’t have this beautiful spicy plant growing on my farm. And with all the other more expensive and expected things for dinner, Phil loved this the best, declaring that “I would never have ordered that at a restaurant, but I LOVE it.”
Good organic unsalted butter, at room temperature
Nasturtium leaves and flowers, chopped
Mix together. I’m not giving quantities because it’s not that kind of recipe. Just do what tastes and looks good.
I planted nasturtium just a few weeks ago, right before the stretch of drought that nearly killed even the established plants in the garden. We were pretty sure it was hopeless, but there it was yesterday, more perky than ever. The same thing happened to the Mid East Prolific cucumber (the one Phil calls “real cucumber” as opposed to the Barbie doll 1″ variety I’m enchanted with). It looked completely dead shortly after it went into the ground and I was going to pull it up, but was too lazy to bother. And now, because I didn’t give up too hastily, we have a constant supply of slender almost seedless specimens for our salads and cocktails. I’m finding many such lessons in the garden. Nasturtium is another of those things you will never see at the grocery store, but they are worth growing yourself: the flowers come in a range of fiery colors and are edible, as are the leaves, which are peppery like watercress, only much more so.
“Too pretty to eat. Almost.” I posted as the caption to this photo on Facebook today. The idea of the farm garden this year was not to sell anything, but to try out a variety of produce to see what worked. I threw three artichoke starts into my cart at the nursery a few months ago on a whim, not expecting to see results. Many things have surprised me about this experiment, not least sitting down to meals like the one tonight that had “Farm Garden” written all over it: In addition to the Bratwursts I’d bought from Skajit River Ranch…Heirloom Tomato Salad, Roasted Broccoli, Blackberry Focaccia and Stuffed Artichoke. I spent the first seven years of my life in New Orleans and have continued to maintain connections in that part of Louisiana, where Stuffed Artichokes are like chicken wings elsewhere. You’re as likely to see them wrapped in plastic at the grocery store as at local restaurants, their leaves plump with a mixture of breadcrumbs, anchovies, garlic, basil and olive oil. But now I know there is nothing like the one you prepare yourself, from the flower you pick in your own garden, almost as pretty ready for the steamer as it was in the field.
Phil sent me this short video last night, a commercial for a farming uncle of one of his co-workers. I love the joy in it. My last job–cooking for a fraternity–had it’s moments of laughter, but I was angry a lot of the time and mostly because of the futility of it; I spent a lot of time sourcing and preparing great food only to find it sitting out unrefrigerated and spoiled the next morning. Or worse. I came to realize that what they appreciated wasn’t really the wholesome food, but that they didn’t have to expend any effort themselves. I received an email a few days ago from the new sales guy for the Alpha Sig House: “I hope you are still using US Foods and if you are not please let us know what we can do to help you!” And I realized in that moment how much more empowered I feel on this side of the food chain and replied with great satisfaction: “Not buying food anymore, I’m producing it…if you’re interested in some organic tomatoes.”
LB planted some seeds a while back. I’d planted most of the garden with starts from Seattle nursery Swansons after my attempts at starting tomatoes from seed in my condo did not go beyond the sprouting stage. I’m amazed now when I look at the tomato plants that were 5 inches tall when I planted them and are now so enormous that they have pushed 6 foot wooden stakes to the ground. And squash plants that were 4 inches in diameter and have spread out to other rows 8 feet away and have creeped through the fencing surrounding the garden, reaching into the hay fields. But what’s really amazing and delightful is the sight of LB’s stuff, mere seeds that have morphed into huge watermelons. You see these things at the grocery store and you think nothing of it, but you see dirt, then a leaf, then a bulb, then one day…holy shit…look at that thing!
Of the four varieties of cherry tomatoes I planted, the Sun Gold were the first to arrive and have been the most prolific. With all these varieties, my most common preservation method is to slow roast them: cut in half, place on a sheet pan, drizzle with olive oil and place in a 200′F oven for a few hours until they’ve lost a lot of their water and have a candy-like stickiness. At that point, they can be refrigerated or frozen; there’s nothing like pulling some of them out in the dead of winter to top a pizza or stir into a marinara sauce, a little burst of summer. But last night, I separated the Sun Golds to make a soup that surprised me with it’s creamy thickness despite having no dairy at all; I did dollop it with some Greek yogurt for serving, partly to add some tartness to what are the sweetest of the cherry tomato varieties and partly for the presentation, but this is easily a vegan soup without any sense of sacrifice. And without the addition of yogurt or cream, it will freeze very well.
Sun Gold Soup
makes about 6 cups
4 cups Sun Gold cherry tomatoes
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock for a vegan version)
1 T chopped fresh tarragon (or fresh herb of choice)
salt and pepper to taste
Saute the onion and garlic in a little olive oil until tender. Add the tomatoes and continue cooking until they begin to break down. Add the chicken stock and simmer 10 or 15 minutes. Allow to cool. Puree in a blender in batches (be very careful if the soup is still hot; only fill the blender 1/3 full at a time and hold the lid down firmly or you’ll have Sun Gold cabinets and flooring). Return to saucepan to heat and add herbs and salt and pepper. Top with yogurt or creme fraiche if desired. For a richer, creamier soup, you could stir a little heavy cream throughout the soup while heating.
I was finally able to post something new on the “Farmhouse” tab, so if like me you’re the type who watch HGTV, vicariously living other people’s home building and design projects, take a look and tell me what you think. For fun, I would do a poll on Facebook, but most of my “friends” are the fraternity guys I used to cook for. And, well, enough said…