Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness ~ John Keats

Royal Oak Farmers Market

Every fall at harvest time, I write about the Michigan farmers markets which are bursting with colorful fruits and vegetables.  Throngs of people converge on the markets to join in the harvest bonanza. The vibrant orange, red and yellow heirloom tomatoes, pure green zucchini, bright yellow summer squash and deep green kales, collards and chards entice the eye like a Jackson Pollock art exhibit.  My readers know how much I admire and respect the men and women who work so hard to grow this food as free from adulteration as possible.

Cinzori Farms Certified Organic Farm Okra

I’m never sure what I’ll find this time of the year at the market. The ripening of each vegetable is totally up to the predictably unpredictable Michigan weather. There are always pleasant surprises–tender young okra from Cinzori Farms one week, baby fennel from Nature’s Pace Organics the next. I realized early on in my cooking career that planning the week’s meals around seasonal crops is how life was lived before modern commercial farming–a rewarding and healthy way to nourish body and soul.

Natures Pace Organics

For me, shopping is only the beginning of the journey.  Upon arriving home, it is a pleasure to prepare dishes from vegetables harvested within twenty-four hours of reaching the market.  I then embellish the creations with tender herbs and greens right from my kitchen garden.

Kale after a Summer Rain

My dishes are prepared using simple techniques to allow the incredible flavor of each ingredient to speak for itself.  The meal reflects the colors and textures of the market and is contemplative and energizing to consume.

Heirloom Tomatoes at the Royal Oak Farmers Market

Below is a recipe good at any time of year, but best during the peak harvest of tomatoes and corn. It is a whole grain corn cake made in the style of a South Indian Uttapam or a Gujarati Poodla.

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Freshly Harvested Corn, Hemp and Chia Cakes with Fresh Tomato Relish

Serves 6

Corn Cakes

1 cup ground whole cornmeal with the germ

1/2 cup hulled hemp seeds

1/4 cup chia seeds

1 1/2 cups water

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 cup corn off the cob

1/4 cup red bell pepper, diced

1/4 cup fresh chives, chopped fine

1/2 cup cilantro, chopped

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

Coconut oil for cooking

For best results, mix the cornmeal, hemp, chia and water, let stand for at least one hour.   Then, mix remaining ingredients, except oil, in with cornmeal mixture.  In a preheated cast iron skillet on medium-high heat, add 2 teaspoons coconut oil and 1/2 cup batter.  Using a spatula, push in the sides to form a 4 inch disc. Cook until nicely browned and carefully turn over.  When other side is brown, remove from the pan and repeat until all are cooked. Serve hot.

Fresh Tomato Relish

Fresh Tomato Relish

1 cup yellow pear tomatoes, halved

1 cup candy red cherry tomatoes, halved

1 cup San Marzano tomatoes, diced in 1/2 inch cubes

1/2 cup tropea red onions, finely diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 red serrano chile, seeded and minced

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1/4 cup cilantro leaves, chopped

1 teaspoon sea salt

Mix all ingredients in a bowl and allow the flavors to meld for at least 30 minutes.

Note:  Cornmeal, hemp and chia mixture can be made the day before.

Once all ingredients are mixed together, immediately begin cooking in skillet.

Best to make Fresh Tomato Relish before making the corn cakes.

I recommend Hampshire Farms certified organic cornmeal, fresh ground, whole and fresh ground.

Topsoil Tales… …or Nourishment from the Ground up

weed it and reap

Discovering life in earth…
Growing up, I often noticed my father’s dog-eared copy of Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening laying about in handy locations with scraps of paper marking pages.  He was a devoted organic gardener who discovered the earth at the age of 30 and incorporated it into his life from then forward.  The key to his bountiful gardens was soil development.

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In the beginning, most of his prospective plots were full of weeds and clay, allowing no drainage. Within a year or two, each garden would become resplendent with vitality, full of color and abounding with supportive wildlife.  Early on, I enjoyed the simple pleasure of plucking herbs, lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini flowers and discovered the tremendous difference it made in the food.

scan0085Beyond the surface…

My father saw his gardens as something more than a source of food.  He interacted with them personally and even believed that a weed has the same beauty (and right) as chosen species and used them decoratively throughout his gardens.  Perhaps this was inherited from his mother who scoured the neighborhood every spring for wild dandelion greens and young tender grape leaves.  He encouraged bees, butterflies, frogs and other denizens of the land to join his garden community.  He planted food for foraging animals, such as rabbit and deer, to provide an alternative to his plot without denying their natural hunger.  Over the years, his gardens turned into lush havens and he could often be found admiring the beauty and life of the plants.  Sometimes he would speak to a plant, coaxing it along in a welcoming manner.  Most often he just enjoyed the contrasts in his cultivated spectacle, between light and color or scent and sound. In the last couple of years he was unable to maintain his own garden, but could often be found in my garden, picking weeds and waxing romantically about a flower, bird or flavor.  His legacy continues in my own gardens and my approach to food.  He taught me how to coax life from the earth and those residing upon it.

Picking weeds NJ 1991 Top of the soil to you…
Soil development is critical to growing  healthy food.  Decomposition,  side by side with fermentation,  are  how food products change through production of enzymes, thus creating compost.  Living organic soils contain key nutrients and minerals which are passed on to us through the food grown in them.  History has demonstrated time and again when civilizations over-cultivate the land, it becomes depleted of nutrients and results in societal decline.  Over the last 200 years in the USA alone, the average topsoil layer has shrunk from twenty inches to six.  The current rate of depletion is one inch every sixteen years.  At this rate, local production will not be able to sustain the population in a few short decades.  At its own pace, it takes nature 500 years to produce an inch of topsoil.  As long as we maintain methods of growing that strip the land of nutrients, healthy organic food will become an expensive commodity only the select few can afford.

For the love of compost…
Not long after purchasing Inn Season Café, I was able to buy the house across the street from the restaurant.  My parents moved into it to help with the restaurant as well as care for my son.  From the start, my father saw the challenge of a neglected yard and began plotting the gardens.  Excited by the source of nutrients nearby (my restaurant), the first thing he built was a giant compost facility with two side by side bins, each holding four to five yards of soil. Healthy development of soil relies on recycling food products back into the earth, primarily through some form of composting.  There is a direct link between nutrients and how the soil is tended. Consulting his Rodale book, he developed an ideal “recipe” for compost and requested buckets full of kale stems, lettuce trimmings and orange peels.  Soon, his bins were “cooking” and the following spring he began  hand-feeding the garden, turning compost into the soil one shovelful at a time.  The plants quickly responded and soon the ragged yard became a lush paradise resplendent with ever changing colors and plentiful herbs.  Years later, they moved out and I moved in, dismantling the compost bins, spreading them and re-landscaping with defined plots, patio, paths and two ponds.   The soil was so rich it did not matter what I planted, everything grew resplendently.  It was indeed my “secret garden” (see article below).

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In loving memory of Spyros Vutetakis

1921 -2009

www.spyrosvutetakis.com

 

 

Locavores do it Fresher!

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Throughout human history the best foods have been local.  Regions, cities, towns and villages would have their own specialties with differences in climate and soil creating subtleties in food, often sought after for the rare experience.    The current slow food movement embraced by chefs the world over, also recognizes these subtleties and strives to preserve the culinary heritage of unique indigenous foods.  In addition, the new movement toward creating local small farm suppliers for goods originally from other areas is encouraged.  With globalization, people take their cultures everywhere and their food can follow them in the form of seeds and nearby craftsmanship.    This is not a new story.  The ancient Silk Road was the first historically notable and documented large scale exchange of goods with trade between Asia (India and China) and the Greeks and Romans.  Sugar reached Europe in small quantities as a food for the elite along with spices and cooking technologies.  At the same time in the Americas, corn made its way up from South to North America as well as a robust trade in shells, feathers and other sacred goods, eventually spreading throughout the Americas.  The age of exploration, particularly the 15th and 16th centuries, changed local food forever.

Cuzco 1962

Spices, seeds and plants crisscrossed the seas and within a few years chiles were common in India, potatoes in Europe and squash, beans and tomatoes all over.  Back in the Americas, olives, pigs, horses and coriander were introduced and often adopted by force.  The pace of change often moved quicker than technology could keep up.  Empires invested heavily in food.  It was the key to economic power.  Sugarcane was planted in the West Indies, Corn in Africa and the southern hemisphere was exploited for the abundance of meat.  Formerly the food of the rich, these foods became available to everyday people and changed the perceptions of diet and health.  The ancient traditions of balancing the diet were based on what was local and indigenous.  With the influx of these former luxury goods, popular culture adapted to include and subsequently rationalize the use.  Indeed, in preserved forms, these foods frequently prevented famine from poor crops, the scourge of local economies which depended on yearly harvests and kind weather.    So we have a double-edged sword.  There is no “best of both worlds” in this story.  It is a story of adaptation and survival, but with a dark side that is driven by the inevitable greed of economic based decisions, which has also resulted in modifying the health of a good portion of the planet.

The phenomenal advances in scientific understanding hardly offset the fact that we have created an epidemic of obesity, an alarming rise in allergic reactions and a society that is blind to what they eat.  Nothing exemplifies this more than the meat industry, which is a systematic mechanism of death to innocent lives as well as a major contributor to the destruction to the environment.  It is quite shocking that the concern for global warming and reduction of the carbon footprint have not addressed this significant impact.  Decisions that affect the health and well being of people are made for economic reasons, instead of looking at what is best for people.  But, this too is not new in our checkered history of toil and struggle.  The question is whether a vision of a bigger picture will prevail.   Let us step out of the darkness and look at the positive opportunities the food system has provided.  More than any other time in human history, any food product one may want is available almost anywhere in the world.  This is an amazing achievement, giving the ability to choose eating what is good for us, to create balance and to eat what we desire.  The choice is now ours and ours alone.

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With the proliferation of local farmers markets, small organic farmers and groceries that buy local, fresh high-quality food is usually right around the corner.  The economic cycle has come full circle to help people realize that quantity does not necessarily equal quality.  In addition, discovering the rich heritage in our culinary traditions adds depth to our food and meaning to life, creating a win-win scenario for local farms and the health of the people around them.    People have also rediscovered gardening and the bounty the earth can provide.

tomatoes in hillcrest

Not since the Victory Gardens of World War II has growing vegetables and herbs been emphasized, or considered as fashionable.  Putting fingers in the soil and nurturing plants to bear fruit is one of the great unsung pleasures of life and is local food at its best.  I can attest to this and always plant a garden wherever I live or work.  It is a simple activity which bonds us to ancestral heritage along with the life-giving energies from the earth, sun and moon.  Try it, you will like it!

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The New Victory Garden

Whether a small potted plant or a full landscaped terrain, gardens are a wonderful way to be connected with earth cycles and the life that springs from it.  In numerous studies, plants have been found to be aware of people, emotions and their intentions. Our leafy friends react accordingly, like mimosas which curl leaves when touched. Gardens help us feel the power and ground our energy like an electrical circuit.
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Understanding the sentient power of plants, the next step is to translate this power into nourishment, not only for the body, but mind and soul as well. There are many people speaking about a victory garden revival including the first family, who have created a plot at The White House. In modern context, planting and harvesting food is not only about providing high quality local food for families, which is significant reason enough. It is also about nurturing our connection with the earth we reside upon. As a society, we spend inordinate amounts of time and energy separating our feet and hands from the soil, covering it with concrete surfaces and crude oil based products as well as keeping a distance with impervious shoe soles and gloves. Gardening is an organic process and should only be attempted using organic methods.

Meditative, relaxing, soothing are some of the words that describe gardening for me. Sure, one can be industrious digging, trenching, tilling, etc and I enjoy doing those things. Essential for me are the plants, like good friends, each one has unique features and personality. In the plot amongst my charge, familiar with each plant as one would be with animal companions. I nourish them and they nurture me in return…my own version of Walden Pond where higher thoughts are natural and each color, every texture and glistening droplets of water are significant and of the moment.

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Past the stages of sprouting and flowering, the waves of first harvests are the most exciting. In the spring, it may be tender arugula, chive shoots and spinach. As the season progresses, delicate lettuces, baby Swiss chard and tender young kale add enough flavor to salads to allow for the lightest of dressings used only to frame the green flavors. With the early months of summer, sweet zucchinis that snap with freshness are connected to bright yellow flowers and the first sun-spiced tomatoes start to appear. From this point on, a well planned garden can provide all the necessary vegetables for the next three months. In San Diego, the summer planting can remain productive for an extra two to three months.

green-salad

I have often said everyone should know how to cook. Historically, it is a significant connection between humanity and the planet we live on. Gardening is an extension of this and was considered part of the cooking process up until recent times. Encouraging victory gardens is a policy that can transform society, putting us in touch with the land we tread upon, the water around us and the sky above. It begins with a thought, whether a romantic or responsible one. Dig the soil, plant a seed, add water. Simple…yet significant.

About Making Scents

jasmine-and-buddhaSweet Jasmine in the Garden

 

 

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived”

Helen Keller

Aromas enchant us, molding images into the cerebral cortex which can be recalled at any moment with a familiar whiff.  With food, an attractive scent can trigger the desire to eat and cause a singular drive to eat something right away. 

The sense of smell is seventy percent of taste.  While taste buds receive input from salty, sweet, bitter and pungent receptors, olfactory input can recognize up to 10,000 different aromas.  This input is immediate and can bypass the normal processing to trigger memory in the cerebral cortex.  Imagine having a barbecue without the intensely sensuous aroma not wafting by.  A world without aroma is a sanitized and bland proposition.  Studies have confirmed that the olfactory sense triggers memories more than the other senses.  Mental imagery with the natural romanticized versions, adds immensely to the ‘theater of dining.’ 

Just as the chemical combination of food ingredients are medicine, food is also integral in aromatherapy.  To exemplify this, think of the scents that floated out of the kitchen as a child, baking cookies or a cake, baking bread, or the almost acrid aroma of food cooking over an open fire.  There is a sound reason for fast food restaurants to exhaust fumes onto the street.  Over the years, it was very common for passersby to eat at Inn Season Café after walking by and smelling the great cooking scents outside our building. 

It has been well documented that specific aromas encourage the body to function in different ways.  There are scents which cleanse nasal passages, a few aid digestion and some inspire passion, while others work with the psyche.  Scent is very much part of the ‘feng shui’ of food and old cultures have this built in to the cuisine.  

Setting a stage with scents

Scent is also very subjective.  What we like has direct correlation to our life experience and conditioning.  For one person the scent of a wonderfully aged cheese is mouth watering, to another it is revolting.  The audience is important when planning a meal.  Sometimes, we need to help educate a palate, so scents are orchestrated to enhance each other, framing the so called offensive aroma with more accessible and universally appealing scents.  When entertaining, it is good to plan an aromatic environment along with the rest of the menu.  Many times the aromas around the food have a profound effect on the flavors inside the preparations.  

Importance of smells in cooking

Without tasting, the scent of food becomes prominent as a tool for perfection.   In Vedic cooking, enjoying the smells of the food for oneself while cooking is the same as tasting it.  The cooking aroma can be enjoyed as part of the process of cooking for others and certainly may be used as a tool for creating culinary wonders. 

Manipulation of aromas during eating

Timing the drifting scents emanating from food and organizing them in a almost symphonic way can be as important as combining spices.  Complimentary aromas play off each other, dancing in the imagination, toying with our memories.  

The after dinner scents

After a fulfilling dinner, scent plays an important role in comfort and good digestion.  Some of the unpleasant things restaurants do which we can avoid in our personal lives are spraying tables with window cleaners to sanitize while customers are nearby; using heavy bleach  solutions to sanitize equipment and counters; have strong smelling food being served with delicate flavors; and allowing smoking nearby, or even at all.  

Fortunately in our own homes, we may create environments without these olfactory pitfalls.  To focus on the positive, candles create warm, cozy scents that are nice when extinguished too.  A flaming dessert or steamy hot fudge sauce can fill the air with deep sensual undertones.  Also removing the food from the table is a must before dessert and after the entire dinner when conversation may be heightened.